Better Broccoli and Cheese Salad

I have a group of girlfriends that get together every couple of weeks, when we can.  It can be difficult to maneuver because we all have calendars that are groaning at the seams, and sometimes trying to find a night that works for the six of us feels like herding cats into a kennel, but thankfully we all make an effort because there’s nothing better than a night with lots of laughter, games, gossip and great food.

At least a few times a year we open up our hen party to the spouses and indulge in a massive potluck.  After all, doubling our numbers is really just an excuse to double up on the food!  The hostess with the mostest this time was our lovely and ebullient friend Lis, and she went above and beyond with platters of addictive appetizers, succulent grilled chicken, and dueling desserts. For our contribution, we brought Moroccan chickpea and raisin salad, because I really can’t get enough of it, and what I like to think of as a ‘better’ broccoli an cheese salad.

Let’s talk about what makes this ‘better’.  I love broccoli salad and I can’t remember the last time that I had a bad one, but there are certainly some that I like more than others.  For a start, I don’t think broccoli salad should be white.  Creamy, perhaps, but a glut of mayonnaise with broccoli as garnish just doesn’t appeal to me.  I think that it should be light, full flavored and fresh tasting.  Finally, I prefer the salad to be more savory than sweet, so the saccharine versions with raisins and a sugared dressing won’t even make it onto my radar.  Oh yes, and as with all so many of my favorite dishes, it must contain cheese and bacon.

With those criteria in mind, I set out to create a ‘better’ broccoli salad, and this is the result.

Broccoli and Cheese Salad

Serves 8

  • 2.5 lb (~1.25 kg) broccoli crowns
  • 1 lb bacon
  • 1.5 cups fresh or frozen lima beans, optional
  • 1 sweet red pepper
  • 1/2 large red onion
  • 7 ounces (200 g) sharp old cheddar cheese
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 4 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup low sour cream
  • handful fresh dill (~1/2 cup minced)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Cut the broccoli into small, bite sized florets and cook them until they are tender crisp.  The method you use is really at your discretion.  You could do steaming the broccoli for 4-6 minutes, blanch it in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, or use the microwave method which is what I did.  The florets went into a large microwave safe dish with a lid, a splash of water went in (2-3 tbsp) and they were nuked on high for 3-4 minutes.

Immediately after the broccoli is cooked, put the florets into an ice-water bath to stop the cooking process and maintain that lovely vibrant green.  Let the broccoli cool completely before removing from the water and be sure to drain those florets well; spreading them out on a dish towel to air dry doesn’t hurt.

In the mean time, dice the bacon and add it to a dry skillet set over medium heat.  Stir the bacon regularly as it renders out the fat because you don’t want any of it to burn.  When the bacon is cooked and ready use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a paper towel lined plate to drain.

Pour off all except for 2 tablespoons of bacon fat from the pan and either discard it or save it for another use.  You can guess which option I choose.  There are few things in the world that I adore as much as bacon fat. Heck, I’d slather it on my knees and elbows in the morning if I wasn’t afraid of attracting every dog in the neighborhood.

Put the pan back over medium heat and add the fresh or frozen lima beans.  Sauté the limas until they’re just cooked through, 2-3 minutes, and then set them aside to cool.

Chop the red pepper into a relatively small dice and mince the red onion.

Press or grate the garlic into a small to medium sized bowl and add the Dijon mustard.  It doesn’t really matter if you use smooth or grainy Dijon because the flavor difference in the finished dish will be negligible. I opted for the grainy mustard because frankly I just love the look of mustard seeds scattered through a dressing.

Whisk the sour cream and buttermilk into the garlic and mustard.  Finely mince the dill and add this to the dressing as well as salt and pepper to taste.  Remembering that the bacon and cheese both run to the salty side you might be tempted to hold back a little bit right now, which is absolutely fine and encouraged, but do remember that if there is one thing in the world that broccoli loves more than anything else, that would be seasoning. Okay, actually it’s butter, but salt and pepper are a close second.

Put all of the prepared ingredients together in a great big mixing bowl.

Grate the cheddar cheese using the larger holes on your box grater and add them to the mix.  Pour the dressing over top and toss everything together gently with your hands.  Check the seasoning and add additional salt or pepper to taste.

This is a great side dish for a late summer BBQ, but it works equally well year round on the potluck table!

I detest gloopy, thick and overpowering creamy dressings, but the tangy buttermilk keeps this nice and light so that the flavors of fresh vegetables and sharp cheese can shine, invigorated by a healthy hit of fresh dill.

My favorite thing about our potlucks is that we always have a table groaning with food, much more than we could possibly hope to consume, so everyone has started to arrive with their prepared dishes as well as a pile of tupperware to divide and conquer the glorious leftovers.  Right now I have a small container of this salad left sitting in the fridge, earmarked for tomorrow’s lunch.  After all, with so much fresh vegetable and a moderate amount of protein from the beans, cheese and bacon, surely this counts as a balanced meal!

  • lauren

    Mmmmmm it was soooooo good, and tasted exactly how a broccoli salad should taste! Adding this to my recipes!

  • Nicole

    Yessss. I always feel like broccoli salad (a staple at southern potlucks, yep) has such potential, but it’s always so gloopy. This looks perfect and anything with dill in it is an automatic winner in my book.

    The shot of the lovely dish sitting on the railing made my heart seize though. I’ve lost way too many big pans of food resting them precariously on available surfaces and hoping for the best.

    Obviously it made it through 🙂

  • karen

    I love you Tina. Almost more than broccoli salad.

  • Tina

    Lauren – I’m glad that you enjoyed it!! When I think back to that night, all I can taste is shiraz…..

    Nicole – I’m a huge fan of dill too. I had some orange and dill shortbread cookies (sweet, not savory) at an open market about 5 years ago, and I still think of them sometimes…sigh….
    In terms of the teetering dish, I also have a lot more fear when my dishes are INSIDE. I mean, outside it’s just the occasional breeze and perhaps some human error in balancing. Inside I have all the human error PLUS two twisted felines who think that a Dutch Oven still somehow counts as a cat toy while they try to bat it off the counter.

    Karen – I know you don’t mean that, but I’ll take the praise!

  • karen

    Now that I’ve actually made this, I love it more than you. Or anybody. Or any thing. Buttermilk, dill and dijon in a dressing go so well with anything, and especially well with anything with bacon. I use a similar dressing for my favorite salad with green beans, red onion, yellow pepper and of course bacon.