Until recently, I hadn’t really had any insight into this question, but listening to Christopher Kimball talk with J. Kenji López-Alt on his ”Milk Street Radio” podcast about another popular broccoli classic, the beef and broccoli, served in many Chinese restaurants in America, I realized something new.
López-Alt pointed out that in this particular dish the point is not the beef flavor, as you might expect – the beef is often washed in order to tenderize it and thus loses a lot of its punch – but more the balance of meat and vegetables. I would go one step further and say that the prominence of broccoli is actually what this dish is all about. If strong meat dominated, the broccoli would lose its, well, its broccoli. To maintain its integrity, the broccoli really needs to stay firm and not be overshadowed by anything too rich.
Which is why, I now understand, my past attempts to cook broccoli long and slow — trying to recreate a cauliflower-cheese with a green hue, or a vegetable gratin for spring — have always ended in fiascos. . Broccoli, unlike its brassica cousins cauliflower, cabbage, or turnip, loses everything and gains nothing when forked. The freshness, color and liveliness of its flesh have disappeared and all that remains is a dull and slightly bitter pulp.
My friend and business partner, Sami Tamimi, who brought us this dish, after cooking it in a restaurant in Tel Aviv, learned the hard way about some other adverse effects of time on broccoli. Mixing it with slices of lemon, which was part of our original recipe, although making it livelier and prettier, causes the florets to lose all their color and turn gray as soon as the dish is exposed. To avoid this, we removed the lemon and instead added a few slices on the side just before serving, which I would recommend doing with the lemon sauce here as well.
The way broccoli is cooked – quickly blanched (to get heat to its core), cooled, dried, tossed in olive oil and seasoning, then put on a hot grill pan to get his stripes neat – did a few useful things.