Bitter has rarely been a flavor we desire in our vegetables, but this seems to be changing as America grows fonder of vegetables in general, and Mediterranean ones in particular.
Arugula and radicchio are two examples that come to mind. And now our attention has turned to broccoli rabe (pronounced rob), sometimes called rapini or broccoli di rapa. With its tangled leaves and small green florets, broccoli rabe looks like a young, unfinished head of broccoli.
Although broccoli and broccoli rabe are similarly named and are both rich in vitamins and nutrients, the two vegetables are distinctly different in taste and they belong to different plant families. Broccoli is a common vegetable in the United States and belongs to the brassica oleracea or cabbage family, while broccoli rabe, a member of the brassica rapa or turnip family, is harder to find and more of an acquired taste because of its bitter edge.
When shopping for broccoli rabe, look for bright-green ruffled leaves, plump stems and many unopened flowers. Smaller-leaved plants are younger, milder and more tender than larger-leaved specimens. To maintain crispness, refrigerate unwashed broccoli rabe loosely wrapped in plastic for up to three days.
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A staple in the Italian and Chinese kitchen where it is called soy chum or Chinese broccoli, broccoli rabe’s mild bitterness is the ideal counterpoint to a rich dish of duck or lamb, or to starchy, sweet, spicy or garlicky foods such as pasta. The leaves, stems and flower heads can be stir-fried, braised, sauteed or steamed.
“The secret to cooking broccoli rapini is to boil the greens briefly before sautéing to rid them of their excessive bitterness and to tenderize the stalks,” Italian cooking authority Julia della Croce advises. “Some people discard the stalks, but the thicker ones, once peeled, are delicious. To avoid overcooking the delicate buds, cook the stems for a minute first before adding the florets to the pot.”
When combined with ingredients that play off its natural taste, such as sauteed garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, broccoli rabe will become a new favorite.
Fusilli with broccoli rabe pesto
This recipe is adapted from Julia della Croce. She is a James Beard Award-winning author and has written more than 15 cookbooks. There isn’t much sweetness to this dish because the greens are slightly bitter and the cheese is sharp. To balance things out, pair with a dry and zesty Wente Vineyards 2013 Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc ($15). Served with a leafy salad and some crusty bread, this easy-to-prepare dish will make for a flavorful Valentine’s Day meal no one would call simple. Serves 4.
1 bunch or 1 package pre-washed broccoli rabe
2 tablespoons kosher salt for cooking water
1/4 cup good extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for dressing
1/3 cup blanched, slivered almonds, lightly toasted (optional)
1 medium clove garlic, minced or shaved
Big pinch hot red pepper flakes, or to taste (optional)
Fine sea salt to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated aged and tangy Italian sheep cheese such as Pecorino Romano plus additional for sprinkling at the table
1 pound imported Italian fusilli
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Fill a pot with enough water to cover the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, trim the broccoli rabe, removing any discolored tips from the bottom and use a paring knife to peel the skin off the thicker stems. Sever all the stems from the crowns. Wash the greens in abundant cold water. Use pre-washed bagged broccoli rabe as is.
To the boiling water, add the kosher salt and the 3 tablespoons olive oil, followed by the broccoli rabe. Cook over high heat until the greens are tender but firm, a total of 8 minutes. Use a mesh strainer to lift the greens out of the pot and transfer them to a colander; save the cooking water. Drain well, pressing to release excess water. They should be moist but not wet.
Coarsely grind the almonds, if using; the garlic, and pepper flakes, if using, in a food processor, 10-15 seconds.
Add the drained broccoli rabe and 1/4 cup olive oil; pulse to puree until the greens are creamy but still have some texture. Check for salt. Transfer the pesto to a bowl and while it is still warm, fold in the grated cheese.
Bring the rabe cooking water back to a boil and add the additional 1 tablespoon kosher salt and the pasta. Follow package directions to cook the pasta “al dente.” Drain and toss with enough of the rabe pesto to cover lightly, about 6 tablespoons for a pound of fusilli. Save the remaining pesto. Serve piping hot with an additional thread of olive oil, if desired, and grated cheese at the table.
Per serving: 389 calories (50 percent from fat), 23.3 g fat, (7.0 g saturated, 8.5 g monounsaturated), 147 mg cholesterol, 35 g protein, 6.9 g carbohydrate, 1.2 g fiber, 417 mg sodium.
Source: Adapted from Julia della Croce.