Broccoli has a lot to offer and it is considered one of the superfoods.

Broccoli is a plant in the cabbage family, whose large flower head is what we know as this familiar vegetable, often found on a vegetable snack tray at parties right close to the Ranch dressing. But, broccoli has so much more to offer. That's why broccoli is a favorite vegetable worldwide. Let's take a look at this flowering vegetable that looks like a tiny tree. You might just be surprised at where it was first discovered.

The word broccoli stems (pun intended) from the Italian plural of broccolo which means "the flowering top of a cabbage." Broccoli has large flower heads, usually green in color, resembling a tree with branches sprouting from a thick edible stalk, or stem. Broccoli most closely resembles cauliflower, which is a different variety from the same species. The cooking aroma of broccoli is most often referred to as 'cabbage like.'

History and trivia

The broccoli we know and love today evolved from a wild cabbage plant somewhere in Europe. That solves the 'cabbage like' aroma mystery. The earliest documentation of the small green, edible tree was discovered to be about 2,000 years ago. Since the rule of Rome, broccoli has been considered a uniquely valuable food among Italians. Broccoli was first introduced to the United States by Italian immigrants but did not become widely known until the 1920s.

The word broccoli comes from the Latin word brachium and the Italian word braccio, which means 'arm.' Broccoli comes in a variety of colors, ranging from deep sage all the way to dark green and purplish-green. The world record for eating broccoli is held by Tom Landers who devoured 1 pound of broccoli in 92 seconds. The tree-like shape makes this healthy veggie a popular fun food for kids. Dip a forest of broccoli trees in Ranch style dressing 'snow' and watch the kids gobble them up like hungry giants.

Preparation and cooking

Broccoli is usually boiled or steamed in the American culture, but has become a popular raw vegetable to accompany creamy dips. Boiling reduces the levels of anti-cancer compounds in broccoli, with losses of 20% to 30% after five minutes, 40% to 50% after ten minutes, and a whopping 77% after thirty minutes. Steaming broccoli for a maximum time of 3 to 4 minutes is recommended to maximize potential anti-cancer compounds.

Adding broccoli to a stir fry dish helps retain a majority of the beneficial properties, rather than letting the nutrients wash away in the boiling water. Another method of cooking that's getting more popular is oven roasting. Simply spread broccoli florets (that's the top cut into tiny bush-like shapes) and diced stem pieces on a baking sheet, coat with cooking oil, and put in oven to roast. You'll have a lightly toasted broccoli dish that's almost nutty in flavor, plus the nutrients didn't get washed down the drain.

You can enjoy raw broccoli in many popular salads, such as the classic Broccoli Raisin Bacon Salad you find at many potlucks. Toss tiny raw broccoli florets in with a big green lettuce salad for a crunchy nutrition boost. Broccoli Slaw is a relatively new idea for serving broccoli. Just peel the stalk to remove all the woody fibers, then cut the light green inside into very thin strips. You can toss these with cabbage and carrots for a slaw, or just eat as is for a snack.

Another popular dish to serve broccoli in a main dish is Chicken Divan. This classic dish features whole broccoli spears underneath a creamy, cheesy layer of chicken. Then, there is the classic Broccoli Cheese Soup. I could go on and on talking about this nutrient-dense delicious veggie and all the tasty dishes you can make with broccoli.

Eat broccoli raw whenever you can for the ultimate health food. When you do cook broccoli, keep your cooking time short if you're steaming it. Better yet, throw it in the oven and roast it. The next time you walk through the produce department, grab a big bunch of broccoli and enjoy the hundreds of ways to eat it up!

Choosing the right bunch

Selecting fresh broccoli isn't difficult. Look for sturdy stalks with compact, dark green florets, and avoid wilted specimens with yellowing buds, as these stalks are already past their prime. Broccoli stores well in the refrigerator for up to three days before losing its vitamin content. In some supermarkets, you will even find hybrids like broccoflower or broccolini, which combine kale or cauliflower with broccoli.

Trim any leaves from the stalk and trim the woody end of the stalk off the bottom. If you prefer to eat only the florets, or your recipe calls for just the florets, cut the broccoli florets off the stalk, rinse under running water, and drain. Save the stalks for another recipe if desired.

It should also be noted that sprouts from broccoli have the same healthful benefits as the plant itself. Toss a handful of sprouts on top of a salad for a real boost of flavor and nutrients. Or, tuck a pile of broccoli sprouts into a tortilla wrap sandwich for a crunchy treat. Anywhere you want to add crunch, add broccoli sprouts.

If you are cooking your broccoli to serve as a side dish, you should only cook it for a few moments, until the florets turn bright green. Cooking broccoli for more time than necessary causes the nutritional benefits to deteriorate. If the broccoli becomes mushy during steaming or boiling, it's cooked too long. You may choose to flash-cook the broccoli in a microwave to keep the cooking time short and to maintain more of the nutrients. Although, the microwave debate still goes on about whether it reduces or destroys nutrients in broccoli. You decide.

Broccoli can be used in anything from stir-fry to casseroles, omelets, soups, and salads. The florets are a pretty, and nutritious, addition to many dishes. The stalks can be chopped and sauted, roasted, or cooked and pureed for a creamy broccoli soup. You'll find thousand of recipes using broccoli once you start searching.

Of course, we can't talk about broccoli and kids without talking about broccoli trees. Raw broccoli florets look like little trees, so use this to your advantage when trying to get kids to eat their broccoli. With a bit of creamy dressing for 'snow,' make a little forest of broccoli trees and your kids will be tempted to gobble them up in no time.

No matter how you serve broccoli - raw, blanched, or steamed as a side dish, or as an ingredient in a main dish - you can't go wrong with this powerhouse vegetable. Besides the boost broccoli gives your immune system, and your overall health, broccoli is just plain tasty. This is one super food you don't want to skip.

Close up of broccoli