Real Food Encyclopedia | Rapini (Broccoli Rabe)
Bitterness is an acquired taste. It is a sensation we don’t necessarily expect, and a flavor that can be downright unpleasant if not handled properly. Rapini (otherwise known as broccoli rabe) is a food rebel’s green, a vegetable only the initiated can understand and love. Its pungent bitterness must be tempered by proper storage, cooking and accompaniments.
Fun Facts about Rapini:
- Andy Boy, the largest US manufacturer of rapini, actually holds the trademark for the name “broccoli rabe.” This means that other growers must refer to the vegetable as “rapini” or one of its other myriad names (rapini, cima di rapa etc.).
- Writer and satirist Anthony Di Renzo, in his book “Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and Ethnicity,” explains that the first wave of Italian immigrants, estranged from their home country (many to never return), often treated miserably by their adopted country, longed for a taste of home. Rapini, sautéed with garlic, olive oil and chile flakes, gave it to them.
What to Look for When Buying Rapini
You’d think that rapini would be closely related to broccoli, right? Weirdly, it’s not! Although broccoli and broccoli rabe are Brassica (mustard family) cousins, rapini’s closest relative is the turnip, a relationship that is evident when you compare their very similar leaves.
Rapini has dark green, almost serrated leaves with thick stems and broccoli-like heads, some of which may be flowering (the flowers are also edible). The vegetable is usually sold in thick bunches.
Look for rapini with no yellow, wilted, black or mushy spots on either the leaves or the broccoli-like clusters. If possible, choose those with smaller stems; thicker stems can be used but tend to be tough and stringy.
Sustainability of Rapini
Pesticides and Rapini
The largest grower of rapini in the US, Andy Boy, is not organically designated, but the company does say that it practices integrated pest management (IPM), a cultivation technique designed to minimize the use of pesticides. Despite this, according to the USDA, a number of pesticides are still used on rapini plants in California.
Labor Issues with Some Rapini
The Andy Boy company, under the umbrella of D’Arrigo Brothers, has been plagued with farm worker labor issues for decades. Until recently, D’Arrigo farm workers went 30 years without a contract. Accounts of the company’s labor problems and troubles with the United Farm Workers (the union famously co-founded by Cesar Chavez) can be found in Anthony DiRenzo’s book, “Bitter Greens,” and also in the LA Times.
Rapini generally has two seasons — late fall and winter, for varieties planted in the late summer/early fall; and late spring/early summer, for varieties planted in the early spring. Cool weather, especially after a first frost, just makes it more delicious. Rapini grown in hot weather is more likely to bolt and to be extra bitter.
Rapini and Geography
Rapini is widely cultivated in Southern Italy, especially in Puglia (Apulia), and is most closely associated with Southern Italian cuisine. In the US, rapini is grown by small farmers and on a larger scale in California by the Andy Boy company. According to Gabriella D’Arrigo (great-granddaughter of one of the founders of Andy Boy), their varieties of California-grown rapini, all of which are proprietary, are based on wild “mustard” plants found growing in California, crossed with wild Italian varietals, further developed through plant breeding. The USDA says that California produces about 90 percent of rapini grown in the US.
Smaller farms and farmers grow it in other places around the country and you can find it at many farmers’ markets at the right time of year.
Eating Rapini/Broccoli Rabe
Rapini is highly perishable — it gets more pungent and bitter the longer you keep it in the fridge. Its broccoli-like heads may turn yellow and mushy the longer it is kept. (This is due to chlorophyll loss. Not yummy.) Therefore, it is best to use it within two or three days of purchase.
Cooking with Rapini
- Trim the bases of each stalk by about an inch. Then, grab a vegetable peeler, and starting at the base of the stalk, peel until the first few layers are removed. Repeat this technique with any other large stems, then cook as your recipe specifies.
- Temper the rapini’s bitterness by blanching first: prior to cooking blanch the rapini in boiling, salted water for two to three minutes (or longer, if necessary). Remove from the water, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking and thoroughly pat dry. Proceed with your chosen recipe.
Rapini can be sautéed, boiled, steamed, grilled and even roasted. It is classically paired with all manner of pork products — pork sausage is especially common, as is the Roman roast pork delicacy porchetta and pancetta, Italian unsmoked bacon. It is also commonly sautéed in copious amounts of extra virgin olive oil, with garlic and chile peppers (the juices sopped up with crusty bread, of course), or added to pasta, especially the cup-like shapes called orecchiette (“little ears”). It pairs well with creamy cheese, like ricotta and mozzarella, and also with white beans and anchovies (see recipe below). As its popularity increases in the US, rapini is even being given consideration as a topping for American favorites hotdogs and pizza (the latter common in the veggie’s Italian homeland). Salt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, chiles, and cheese all serve to temper rapini’s pungent bite.
Rapini is positively loaded with Vitamin K, necessary for blood clotting and bone health. It is also high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and fiber, and is a good source of calcium, folate, iron and manganese. It even has a bit of protein. Brassicas in general have been purported to have anti-cancer properties due to the glucosinolates found in most varieties.