By: Co+op

If you love broccoli, thank your genes. A genetic predisposition explains why some people can taste the bitter compounds in the vegetable while others can't. It seems there are plenty of us with broccoli-loving genes, though; broccoli is the most popular cruciferous vegetable in the United States.

Originally a type of wild cabbage grown along the Mediterranean, the plant was bred into several sub-species, including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts. In fact, broccoli's Italian name means "cabbage sprout." Broccoli was introduced to France in the 1500s and to England in 1720. Italian immigrants in New York began commercial production in the 1920s, while at the same time the D'Arrigo brothers from Messina, Italy, began production in California. Today, 90 percent of the broccoli grown in the U.S. comes from California.

Actually an edible, unblooming flower, broccoli has one of the highest nutritive values of any vegetable. It's especially high in vitamin C and vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene). It's also a good source of protein, vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, vitamin K, vitamin B6, folate, potassium and manganese. It's high in dietary fiber and contains antioxidants to boot.

You'll find green, blue-green and purple broccoli. One of the most popular varieties is the Italian green (Italian broccoli, sprouting broccoli or Calabrese, named for the city in Italy where it's grown). Broccolini, or baby broccoli, is a mix between broccoli and Chinese broccoli (gai-lan). Broccoli raab (broccoli rabe or rapini) is a popular Chinese vegetable, but it's not actually broccoli. And broccoflowers are a broccoli/cauliflower combo.

For maximum nutrition and flavor, cook broccoli as soon as possible after harvest, but don't overcook, or it will become mushy. Lightly steaming produces the perfect texture, and it's said to provide higher nutrient availability than serving broccoli raw.

The stalks and head (clusters of tight buds) are all edible. If you find the stalks too tough, simply peel them.

For a classic side dish, broccoli is delicious steamed, spritzed with lemon and sprinkled with coarse black pepper and other favorite spices. 

Broccoli florets are lovely in a salad. Make this Mediterranean Broccoli Salad ahead of time to allow the flavors to meld. For quick and easy, pick up a bag of broccoli slaw mix and combine with lemon yogurt, mayo and dried fruit for an almost-instant Super Slaw.

Broccoli is hearty enough for a strong performance in main dishes, too, such as Chinese Beef and Broccoli. Add it to lasagna, grain casseroles and stir-fries. Broccoli Cheddar Frittata makes for a stellar meal at breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Soup is a great way to use the broccoli stems that you may have accumulated while making recipes with the florets. No soup repertoire would be complete without a solid Broccoli Cheese Soup, in this case enriched with dark beer and Dijon mustard. Or maybe you'll prefer this simple Creamy Broccoli Soup, with rice and sour cream. Either would be a nurturing dish on a winter's day.

While it's available in the produce aisle all year, broccoli is at its peak from October through April.

Look for fresh-smelling specimens with strong, dark green color that isn't yellowed. The stems should be lighter green than the buds and easy to pierce with your fingernail (not hard, dry or woody). Avoid heads with flowering bud clusters, opting for tight, compact buds instead. The leaves should look healthy, too.

Store unwashed broccoli in loose or perforated vegetable bags in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. Try to serve it within three to five days, because the flavor will become stronger and less sweet if it's stored longer.