Broccoli and cauliflower are so closely related that in southern Italy, where both are eaten with enthusiasm, the word broccoli refers to cauliflower (cavolfiore in the rest of the country). What we call broccoli, they call sparacelli.
Whatever you call them, prices for both have been on a roller coaster this fall, and for the next couple of weeks they'll be at their lowest points.
That's because the harvest is shifting from the north, around Salinas, to the south, the desert growing regions of the Imperial Valley and east into Arizona. Right now, both areas are producing, so there is an overlap in the harvest. That means lots of broccoli and cauliflower on the market and that means low prices.
The bonanza is temporary, though, especially given the rains that have pummeled the north for the last couple of weeks. That much moisture can lead to rapid spoilage, and if the quality gets too bad, it could end the harvest earlier than usual.
"Prices will firm up once the harvest is concentrated in the desert," says Ray Griffin, a salesman for Misionero Vegetables, a Salinas-area grower-shipper.
When you're buying broccoli, Griffin says, check for "tight beads, nice condensed heads and smooth domes; you don't want the tops to get real 'knuckley.' " Although broccoli coming from the desert is apt to be in better condition right now than that from Salinas, hot weather can create hollow stems, a condition brought about by too-rapid growth.
Because of the cool mild weather so far in the desert, cauliflower is in good shape. When the weather heats up, though, cauliflower is susceptible to "ricing," a kind of fuzz that also comes from too-rapid growth. Also, because of its creamy pale color, cauliflower shows bruising quickly. Look for dark spots on the head where it has started to break down.