This Stovetop Skillet Broccoli Has Big Grilled Flavor

When we talk about burning food, disaster usually comes to mind. Just saying the word incites panic. It’s also a bit of a taboo personality trait to like burnt things. (I don’t trust anyone who likes burnt toast.) But unlike cookies or popcorn, broccoli is especially well-suited to burning. Its sweet vegetal freshness holds up against the pleasant bitterness that develops when you char its exterior. The ultra-savory char, in fact, balances its aggressively green flavor. Scattered with a few briney Castelvetrano olives to add some richness, and dotted with creamy chèvre for a touch of acidity, burnt broccoli quickly becomes a salad that eats like a meal.

Grilling (read: socially acceptable burning) is one of the quickest routes to complex-tasting vegetable dishes. The high heat and open flame of the grill lets you char the outsides of vegetables like asparagus and peppers (and broccoli) while maintaining a fresh, just-cooked crunch on the inside, creating a huge range of flavor with close to no effort. But actually, you don’t need a patio with a $500 grill and some temperate weather to achieve this effect—you just need a stovetop range and a cast-iron skillet.

When chef Brooks Headley started selling burnt broccoli salad from his studio apartment-sized restaurant Superiority Burger, GQ described the smoky brassica as tasting like “already smoked weed (but in a good way!).” Headley’s temporarily-closed restaurant is lauded for its fresh take on veganism, but they’re also pioneers of making the most of small spaces—in this case charring vegetables in a cast iron skillet.

food, this stovetop skillet broccoli has big grilled flavor

I’ve used the same technique countless times to mimic a grill’s flavor while cooking in my own, literal studio apartment. Burning vegetables in a cast iron pan takes about five minutes. The trick is searing them without oil. Holding off on the oil lets you cook—or burn, really—only the parts of the vegetable that are directly in contact with the pan, leaving the rest of it (for the moment) pretty much raw. Fear not, this is what we want!

Once you’ve got the smokey, flavor-blasting burnt color, you can add a splash of oil, take the pan off the heat, and quickly toss your broccoli around to finish cooking it. In effect, burning this way gives you more control than grilling does, and makes pulling off the stark contrast of a burnt exterior and bright green, just-cooked center easy. Traditional methods like roasting in the oven on a sheet pan or sautéing on the stove could never get close to creating so much color without overcooking or drying out the rest of the vegetable.

It is important to note, however, that there is still a range of what’s acceptable in the burning vegetables game. Just like broccoli that’s been steamed to death and turned brown and mushy, overly burnt broccoli will be dry and acrid. Like grill marks, a little bit of burn goes a long way. The goal is to have a distinct contrast of black and green, each complementing the other, with neither stealing the show.

The resulting effect is smoky with a bitter edge, and the acutely focused, deep char gives a wider range of flavors than classically grilled veggies. Because most of the cooking happens before any oil hits the pan, this salad isn’t going to smoke out the kitchen of your fifth-floor walkup, but it’s a good idea to crack a window and keep the exhaust fan running.

Burnt Broccoli and Crushed Olive Salad

food, this stovetop skillet broccoli has big grilled flavor

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