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. This must be why I think of rapini as 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. It is a temperamental veggie. Writer and satirist Anthony Di Renzo, in his extraordinary book Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and Ethnicity, says about rapini:
[i]ts bitterness outrages Main Street, just as its etymology and taxonomy shock the Linguistic Society of America and baffle the Smithsonian Botanical Department. All attempts to assimilate it have failed.
He goes on to describe rapini as an Italian-American symbolic reminder of the bitterness of displacement from the homeland, “[t]his weed of exile and exploitation.” 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. If you’ve never tried rapini, I urge you to check it out – just brace yourself for that first delicious, bitter bite.
Rapini, also known as broccoli raab (or rabe – read on for the veggie’s many aliases), is yet another member of the venerable Brassica family, the botanical group that includes tasty cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, mustard and collards. The progenitor of the vegetable likely has Central Asian origins, although much of its history is obscure. Giuliano Bugialli, in his seminal 1977 cookbook The Fine Art of Italian Cooking, notes that the first recipes for the vegetable appear in the first 14th century Italian cookbooks. Anthony Di Renzo explains that cross pollination and hybridization of turnip varietals in the Middle Ages eventually rewarded us with true rapini, although the transformation from turnip green to broccoli raab is not fully documented.
In the US, the Italian immigrant-founded company Andy Boy (under the umbrella company D’Arrigo Brothers, one of the largest produce growers in the US) was the first company to grow the vegetable in the late 1920s – although it is likely that Italian immigrants were growing the vegetable in their kitchen gardens first. Andy Boy’s production of the bitter Brassica didn’t take off until the mid-1960s.
Rapini is a cool season crop that performs best as either a spring or fall veggie. You’d think that rapini (aka broccoli raab), would be closely related to broccoli, right? Weirdly, it’s not! Although broccoli and broccoli raab are Brassica (mustard family) cousins, rapini’s closest relative is the turnip. In fact, botanists cannot seem to agree on taxonomy for the vegetable – some sources classify rapini as the same subspecies as turnips (Brassica rapa var. rapa), others give the veggie its own varietal name (Brassica rapa var. rapifera or Brassica rapa var. ruvo). Either way, rapini’s relationship to the turnip is evident when you compare the leaves of each – they are remarkably similar. Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are many, many names for our leafy green friend – author Anthony Di Renzo jokes, “such aliases make middle-class Americans anxious.” The vegetables alternate names include:
Broccolini (aka., broccoletti) is a different vegetable entirely (though still in the Brassica family). A cross between broccoli and kai-lan (Chinese broccoli, which looks similar to broccoli raab, but is a different species of Brassica), the name “broccolini” is also a registered trademark.
Rapini is widely cultivated in Southern Italy, especially in Puglia (Apulia), and is most closely associated with Southern Italian cuisine, although Bugialli says, “spinach aside, there is probably no vegetable more typically Tuscan.” In the US, rapini is grown by small farmers and on a larger scale in California by the Andy Boy company. According to a conversation I had with the 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.
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.
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. If you are concerned, seek out locally grown rapini and ask the farmer about his/her growing practices. Likewise, if you are a true locavore, consider looking for rapini grown closer to you (unless you live in California!). (*Also check out our “veggie rule of thumb.”)
It’s also worth noting that the Andy Boy company, under the umbrella of D’Arrigo Brothers, has been plagued with farm worker labor issues for decades. Up 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 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 rapini with smaller stems – thicker stems can be used but tend to be tough and stringy. (See Pro Tips, below.)
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.
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.
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, cheese –all serve to temper rapini’s pungent bite.
The first tip comes from a real rapini pro – my husband’s grandmother, whose family originally hailed from Bari, Italy, a hotbed of broccoli rabe consumption. Although Nanny passed away almost a decade ago, her cooking techniques live on in the memories of her family members. Called “broccolirabe” (one word), my husband remembers it as a side dish with practically every family dinner. In true frugal Italian-American style, even the thickest stems were used. First, 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.
The second tip is a way to further temper rapini’s bitterness – many cooks swear by the blanch-first method: prior to cooking (for example, sautéing in olive oil – see Recipe below), 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.
The creative guys responsible for the popular NYC restaurant Torrisi Italian Specialties have this awesome-looking recipe for lacto-fermented rapini, in the style of kimchi, that will keep for up to two months in the fridge. Apparently the veggie can also be frozen successfully.
Pan-Fried Broccoli Raab Sandwiches with Anchovy-White Bean Spread, Fresh Mozzarella & Roasted Red Peppers
This is the winter sister to my favorite summery treat: mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwiches. Don’t be put off by the anchovies – I promise your white bean spread won’t taste fishy! The anchovies simply add a bit of delicious umami flavor. (Omit them if you must!) Use fresh-baked Italian rolls or focaccia for best results.
For the rapini:
1 bunch rapini (about 1 lb.), trimmed, very think stems peeled (see Pro Tips, above)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Red chile flakes, to taste
For the anchovy-white bean spread:
1 can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely minced or pressed
2 oil-cured anchovies, mashed
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ ; lemon
To assemble the sandwiches:
1 large roasted red pepper, bottled or homemade (see note), sliced into ½ ; inch thick lengths
8 oz. fresh mozzarella, sliced into ½ ; inch thick rounds
Additional olive oil, for drizzling (optional)
2 crusty Italian rolls or focaccia, lightly toasted
Note: here’s a good tutorial on how to roast your own peppers.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)