The easiest way to make people want to eat broccoli is it douse it in cheese or candy it, and there’s nothing wrong with those strategies. But that doesn’t work for those of us who are trying to cut down on dairy or sugar. (Not me, but I’m sure someone is). But there is a way to coax flavor out of the humble green vegetable without the addition of cheese or sucrose. You just need to smash it before cooking.
Smashing increases the amount of contact the florets make with the pan. Just as with a burger, this increased contact leads to increased browning, and browning—the non-enzymatic kind—is where flavor is born. It also creates little crispy bits and a tender inside, both of which are preferable to mushy bits with a mushy inside.
I did not come up with “smashed broccoli” on my own. Do a quick internet search, and you’ll find many recipes for it. Some enlist the oven, and some call for a quick blanch followed by a pan sear. I prefer the blanch-and-sear method. Blanching gets the broccoli just tender enough for a smashing, without making it mushy, and it’s much faster than going the oven-only route. (If you prefer roasted broccoli, however, use a wire rack.)
Submerge the florets in salted boiling water for a minute or so, until they are bright green, then plunge them in an ice water bath. Dry them thoroughly. I use a salad spinner to do so, but you can also place the blanched stalks on wire rack in the fridge to get them extra-dry. And the dryer they are, the less likely the florets are to steam after smashing, and that can lead to mushiness, and that is what we’re trying to avoid.
Once the broccoli is dry, heat your favorite fat (like bacon grease) in a stainless steel or cast iron pan over medium-high heat, until it starts to shimmer. Grab your largest spatula—I use this one—add the broccoli to the pan, then press down with the spatula as hard as you can. Let it sear for a few minutes, until it is well browned on the bottom, then flip and repeat the smash. Once both sides have browned, transfer to a plate. You’ve already upped the flavor, but you can still season with salt, then garnish with finely grated cheese (it’s a natural pairing) and a little lemon zest. A little monosodium glutamate wouldn’t suck either. It is, after all, still broccoli.