Baby broccoli, also known as asparation or broccolini, is a hybrid cross of broccoli and Chinese kale. It often appears in side dishes at white tablecloth restaurants, and is also used by some home cooks who want to experiment with new and different vegetables. The price is often comparable to broccoli at the store, and baby broccoli also tends to last better on the shelf, since it does not become bitter or woody as quickly as broccoli does.
The name of the plant is somewhat misleading, since baby broccoli is not an immature version of a broccoli plant. The plant does superficially resemble broccoli, with long thin stems topped by small clusters of edible flowers. Some consumers compare it to asparagus, since it has a similar slightly sweet flavor. Baby broccoli also has a faint bite, courtesy of its broccoli relatives. Every part of the plant is edible, and the skin is so soft and tender that it is usually left on.
Like both broccoli and Chinese kale, or gai lan, baby broccoli is classified as Brassica oleracea. This species has several cultivars, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, Chinese kale, kale, and cauliflower. Each cultivar has been bred for specific traits, resulting in a large group of plants which all have distinct appearances and flavors. All of the groups share a peppery bite in both fresh and cooked forms, and they are widely cultivated around the world.
Because this vegetable is extremely tender, it can be eaten raw or cooked. In raw form, it is added to salads or paired with dips. Cooked baby broccoli may be offered as a side, mixed in with quiche, or included in omelets, among many other uses. The vegetable takes well to grilling, roasting, and sauteing.
The plant can be difficult to cultivate. It prefers temperate zones, and will become woody and bitter if the weather is too hot. Cold weather can also damage the plant. The finicky growth habit of baby broccoli can be frustrating for gardeners, as can the variance in taste. Two seemingly identical plants may have very different flavor profiles, requiring gardeners to weed out unwanted plants before they get too large. In very temperate places, baby broccoli can be grown in April through September or October, while cooler regions may have a shorter growing season, and a hot climate may have two growing seasons, one in spring and one in fall.