Just as Lady Gaga used to be just a singer, broccoli, when I was a kid, was just a vegetable. A vegetable that my mom boiled to oblivion until it barely required mastication, its unfavorable vegetable status thinly disguised by a slice of American cheese draped over the top.
But now it’s 2019. Lady Gaga is an actress, practically grasping her Oscar. And broccoli and cheese, too, can break free of society’s expectations. Because it can be more. There could be a hundred people in the kitchen, but all it takes is one person to believe. That person is me.
I believe that broccoli and cheese doesn’t have to be a smushy, underseasoned food you’ll sit at the table and finish, damn it, or there won’t be any dessert. It can be crispy, sparkling with Parmesan, bursting with umami. It can sit in a swoosh of ricotta on top of crunchy toast, or next to a steak on a creamy bed of molten gruyère. Broccoli and cheese is the childhood dish you’ve written off, but I’m here to make the case for its second act.
Bradley Cooper first thought of casting Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born” when he saw her sing “La Vie En Rose.” I first got the idea that broccoli and cheese could be more than a childhood trauma (sorry, mom) when my coworker Anna developed this steak and broccoli recipe.
The key to that recipe’s deliciousness lies, first, in the use of broccolini. Because broccolini is better than broccoli—and yes, I’m prepared to bring this lukewarm take with me to my grave. Broccolini has smaller branches that get crispier in a hot oven. Meanwhile, says Anna, “the little blooms are bigger, so you don’t get the weird crumbly bits that you get with broccoli. Also the taste is just sweeter.”
Anna roasts her broccolini with oil and salt on a baking sheet until it is not just cooked, but crispy and charred—another key to the dish’s deliciousness. Unlike steaming and boiling, roasting adds a deep savoriness to the broccolini. “I tried to make the dish with steamed broccoli and cheese sauce, but it just wasn’t as exciting,” Anna says. “You need the crispiness of the roasted broccoli to offset the creaminess of the cheese.”
About that cheese: Anna wanted to use Gruyére rather than cheddar in her sauce because it puts a twist on the classic dish (Gruyére has a funkiness that cheddar can only dream of). The broccoli and steak are plated on top of the sauce, so that there’s sauce in every bite. This is broccoli and cheese that’s been elevated. You may even call it adult.
But still, this isn’t all that broccoli and cheese can be.
Broccoli and cheese can be baked into a gratin on a sheet pan, where the increased surface area results in a high ratio of crispy cheese to tender broccoli. For proof, see this Raquel Pelzel recipe., which comes from her book, Sheet Pan Suppers Meatless. Raquel’s kids love broccoli, but there’s only so many times you can eat roasted broccoli in a week, she says. She was looking for a way to do something new with broccoli and cheese when she had a crispy, salty taste memory: “I’ve always loved the way when you make a panini or a grilled cheese that the cheese griddles and gets kind of crispy in the grooves—the crusty bits are the best part.”
So in her take on broc-and-cheese, the sheet pan is pre-heated, which shaves time off of the cooking and also gives vegetables a nice sear. She throws the broccoli on the preheated sheet pan, broils it, then adds cheese to the top to melt. “To make it extra crispy, I throw in panko, but a lot of times if I’m busy I’ll just throw the cheese over the broccoli and broil it. You get all of those crusty bits around the side, and those are the best parts,” she says. “At the end of the meal we’re all picking at the little cheese scraps on the tray.”
Like Anna, Raquel wanted a little more umami and depth-of-flavor to her dish. So she opted for a combo of cheddar and Parmesan, which is, importantly, an aged cheese. “As something ages the flavor intensifies. You’re bringing that fifth sense of savory deliciousness through the bite. And you’re broiling it to get that caramelization,” she says. To really take it over the top, you could use an aged cheddar, too.
But these dishes are the beginning of the broc-and-cheese renaissance, not the end. Look: broccoli can be roasted with copious amounts of garlic and dropped onto ricotta-topped toasts. It can be pressed, with mozzarella, into picnic-ready sandwiches. It can be tossed, raw, with lots of parm, into a Caesar salad. Just keep the broccoli crisp and the cheese sharp. We’re far from the shallow now.