Asparation, broccolini, or baby broccoli are all retail names for a naturally occurring hybrid of broccoli and Gai Lan also known as Chinese flowering green kale. The Sakata Seed Company is a Japanese company working in Northern California where in 1998 began producing seeds for Aspiration as a cash crop. By 2000 Mann Packing Company in Salinas California was growing Asparation for market. Asparation is not a genetically modified organism, which has been a confusion in the past.
Asparation is more difficult to farm than broccoli; it takes a lot of hand care. Early in the growing season, the central bloom of every plant has to be pinched off to allow the leggy side shoots to grow. It also takes repeated pickings, unlike broccoli. Because of that, asparation will probably never become a staple vegetable.
The name asparation comes from the fact that early tastings of the plant by the Japanese public described the stem as having the flavor of asparagus. This has not come to fruit in the North American community and the names broccolini, and even more generic baby broccoli have become more common.
Asparation has a pleasantly sweet flavor, lacking any bitterness associated with kale or broccoli. The stem is completely edible without peeling, and the florets hold up well after cooking. I first used Asparation when it was fresh on the market back in 2000 while working at Severance Hall. We used it there for a lot of catering events as the vegetable holds well under heat. Today we are treating the Asparation with more care. A quick blanch takes the edge off and sets a wonderful dark green color, then we Sauteed them in some butter, garlic and salt.