This method came from my dear friend, Aurelia Esposito, who was a local restaurateur for many years in the Daytona Beach area. She was a beautiful soul, and her flair for Roma-style Italian cooking attracted locals, visitors, and celebrities to her tables.
Aurelia would often have broccoli as a side dish and it was always SO good. She told me, in her heavy Italian accent, “my darling, da water has to taste-ah like-ah da sea.” In other words, salt your cooking water well — enough salt so that it tastes like sea water. That’s pretty salty, but you need that — in the cooking water — for vegetables and also pasta. Otherwise, they will be bland and you cannot salt on top after cooking or it just tastes salty. Not the same. So that has always stuck with me…
About the broccoli — the stems were always cooked perfectly tender, but the tops held their shape and were not mushy. For me, when I boil or steam broccoli, in order to get the stems cooked then the tops would be over-done. She told me to cook them standing up, so that only the stalks were touching the water, and that the tops would get steam-done. Genius!
When I buy fresh broccoli, I no longer throw away the rubber band. Trim off the bottom part of the broccoli stem an inch or two, and cut each stem in half (cut through each stem, lengthwise, about 2/3 of the way up the stem, and stop before you get to the florets so that the stem holds together). In this fashion, the stem cooks more quickly. Re-attach the rubber band so that the stalks are held firmly together and could pretty much stand on their own.
Fill a high-sided pot about 3-inches of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Salt your water after it boils (not before) and add the broccoli standing up on the stalks, so that the bottom of each stalk is in contact with the bottom of the pan, and the florets are on top, not touching the water. Cook for about 4-5 minutes, until the stalks are done to your liking, and the florets will be steamed nicely but not overcooked.
After removing the cooked broccoli from the pan, I will run it under cold water (or plunge it into an ice water bath) if I am not going to serve it right away. If you are not preparing ice water to plunge them into, then have a colander in your sink and turn the cooking pan upside-down into the colander, so that the florets are at the bottom of the colander and the stalks are standing straight up. Then, when you run cold tap water on the stems, it helps them cool down first and does not break up the fragile florets.
You can finish the lengthwise cut you started earlier to cut each stalk in half, and then I usually cut each half in half again, so that the stalks are quartered — with a nice bit of floret on the top of each quarter stalk. It seems the most reasonable portion to me.
You can prepare some olive oil & chopped garlic in a skillet to toss the broccoli in for serving, or re-heat in the microwave (not too long!) and drizzle the garlic oil on top. Finally, squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the top and your guests will love it!