High in vitamin C, beta carotene and antioxidants, broccoli is in full force in January.

If broccoli were a tree, it would be an oak, guardian of the vegetable forest. Since the Roman Empire, it has served legions of Italians as a dependable and surprisingly versatile element of the culinary landscape.

Why then, stateside, is it so thoroughly misunderstood? Mostly, bad preparation. If theres one way to make a lifelong enemy of broccoli, its by cooking it into mushy, army-green obliviona sight many of us are still trying to erase from our childhood memories.

One of the best ways to keep it crisp is a quick steam (3 to 4 minutes) until its barely fork tender and a bright, emerald green. Then youre ready for everything from stir-fries to pasta dishes to casseroles.

Still not convinced? Try cheese and broccoli, a great combo that creates some great gateway dishes for finicky children and spouses. Also, try roasting it, which brings out bold, caramelized flavors that can convert non-believers into lifelong fans.

<em>Story by Jim Myers, a food writer in Nashville, Tenn.</em>
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