Whatever you do, don't confuse it with broccoli rabe.
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steam broccolini on blue blate
Credit: Claudia Totir / Getty Images

Broccolini, we love you. Is there anything easier than tossing a tidy handful of broccolini straight into a steamer basket, then lifting the lid eight minutes later to find the slender stalks that are perfectly al dente and sweetly, deeply green? Cooking this vegetable is much easier than understanding its backstory. Do you call it broccolini or sprouting broccoli, tender stem broccoli or baby broccoli? Regardless of the name you use, this broccoli-in-miniature raises some interesting questions: Is broccolini a baby broccoli? Is it an heirloom vegetable? Is it a naked broccoli rabe? And with such an Italian name, does broccolini come from Italy? We have answers. And they might surprise you.

What Is Broccolini?

Here's the first surprise: The name broccolini is a registered trademark. That's right. It should be Broccolini®. Here's the story: In the late 1980s, the idea for a new vegetable was born in Japan. The Sakata Seed Corporation, a leading broccoli seed grower and exporter, wanted a crop with a longer harvest-season and that was less fussy about growing conditions, than broccoli (which hates being hot). The result was a cross between two varieties of Brassica oleracea. The first is Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra, or Chinese kale, whose stalks are succulent and very leafy, with diminutive, loose florets. It's relatively heat-tolerant. The second is familiar old broccoli, Brassica oleracea var. italica, with stout, tougher stalks and enormous, tight heads. After years of experiments, a hand-pollinated hybrid was named "Asparation" because of its tenderly asparagus-like stems.

Via Sakata's California subsidiary, "Asparation" seeds made their way into the Californian soil of a small family-run farm and shipper, Sanbon Inc., for further testing. It failed its heat test spectacularly, disliking heat as much as broccoli, but it tasted delicious and was very pretty. By the late 1990s, Sanbon was sending samples to fancy food stores. Sakata wanted to expand the reach of "Asparation", which is how Mann Packing, the biggest broccoli shipper in the world and the biggest buyer of Sakata's broccoli-seed, began growing it in 1998 in cool-climate Salinas. The only problem was that they wanted a catchier name. Broccolini® was coined at a dinner party by Deb Nucci, the wife of the company's then chief executive officer Joe Nucci.

This wordy background explains why, when you do an online search for "broccolini seeds," most of your results will return strangely cleansed of the trademarked name but directing you to vegetables that look very much like, well, Broccolini®. If you modify your search and look for "sprouting broccoli" or "tender stem broccoli" or "mini broccoli," you find the same vegetable. Most reputable seed purveyors are aware of the trademark and would not infringe upon on it by taking its name in vain. To add to the Broccolini® intrigue, Sakata began selling the seeds as Aspabroc 2013. If you search that term, you'll find...in essence, ending where you began: Broccolini®. The child of creative, vegetable-growing, ambitious minds.

How to Use Broccolini

We just like to eat it. Steaming Broccolini® is the quickest way to enjoy it in purist form. A drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil, roasted sesame oil, or butter, is all it needs. Another option is to drop the just-cooked stems into the pan sauce you are finishing, into the hot skillet of the roast chicken you are pulling out of the oven, or onto the mapo tofu you just made. It's an effortless pop of green, and an almost-instant vegetable tonic.

You may also like Broccolini®: sautéed with sesame ginger and soy; folded with feta into a vegetable galette; broiled with chicken in a spicy peanut sauce; stuffed into portable vegetable melts with a basil aioli; tossed with peppers and artichokes in deep dish pizza; added late to succulent pad see ew; or blanched or served raw to be dipped into luscious bagna cauda.

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