You Don't Have To Be Italian To Eat Broccoli Rabe

A bunch of broccoli rabe sits in a yellow bowl i i

hide captionBroccoli rabe may resemble broccoli, but its distinctive flavor is closer to turnips, mustard greens and kale.

Susan Russo for NPR
A bunch of broccoli rabe sits in a yellow bowl

Broccoli rabe may resemble broccoli, but its distinctive flavor is closer to turnips, mustard greens and kale.

Susan Russo for NPR

Recently during a phone call with my mom, I mentioned that I was going to make broccoli rabe for an upcoming dinner party.

"Oh, no, honey, you can't serve broccoli rabe," she said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because, you know, broccoli rabe has a distinctive flavor," and she whispered "distinctive" like someone would whisper "cancer" at the dinner table.

It's difficult for me to imagine anyone not liking broccoli rabe, a green vegetable known for its distinctive bitter flavor. Growing up in Italian-centric Rhode Island, broccoli rabe was everywhere — at markets large and small, on restaurant menus and in most people's refrigerators.

Broccoli rabe was a staple at every Sunday dinner and appeared at least one other time midweek, topping pizza, smothering a veal cutlet or nestled inside a crusty Italian roll with grilled Italian sausage. My mom made it all the time for our family but not for company. It was too risky.

Broccoli rabe originated in the Mediterranean and China and today is grown throughout the world. It features prominently in both Italian and Asian cuisines, particularly in Southern Italy and Hong Kong.

It has taken a while for Americans to embrace this full-flavored vegetable, but thanks to popular chefs such as Lidia Bastianich, a grande dame of Italian-American cooking, broccoli rabe has become more mainstream in the past couple of decades.

Once people start cooking with broccoli rabe, they realize it's remarkably versatile. As well as making a delicious side dish, it's a robust addition to sandwiches, pizzas, calzones, crostini, pastas, frittatas and soups.

About The Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. She is working on two cookbooks (Quirk Books) that will be released in the fall. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

Although broccoli rabe is in the same genus as broccoli (Brassica), it's more closely related to the turnip, so its flavor is akin to turnips, mustard greens and kale. It does resemble broccoli, though — or, rather, its more attractive cousin: Svelte, dark green stalks are topped with small, tight clusters of green broccoli flowers and dramatic, spiky leaves.

Perhaps more than any other vegetable, broccoli rabe is known by various names, including rapini, broccoli raab (pronounced rob), raab, rape, rapa, broccoli di rape and rappi. In the U.S., it is most commonly called broccoli rabe or rapini. It is not, however, the same thing as broccolini or baby broccoli, which are much sweeter.

Broccoli rabe's peak season runs from late fall through late spring, though it's available at most major supermarkets year-round. When selecting broccoli rabe, look for richly colored dark green leaves and firm, green flower clusters. Avoid bunches with yellow- or brown-tinged leaves, yellow flower clusters or woody stems, all signs that the vegetable is old.

All parts of broccoli rabe are edible, but stalks should be trimmed. Broccoli rabe can be steamed, boiled, sauteed and roasted. I generally prefer to parboil and "shock" broccoli rabe before sauteing it. Simply boil the broccoli rabe for two minutes. Drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water for three to five minutes. Drain and squeeze to release excess water. This helps maintain its vivid color, reduce bitterness and make it more tender.

To balance broccoli rabe's bitterness, do not add sugar, which creates an unpleasant flavor. Instead, pair it with salty, sweet or acidic foods that naturally reduce bitterness and enhance flavor.

Salty foods such as sausage, pancetta, anchovies and olives have an affinity for broccoli rabe. Sweet currants, raisins and cherry tomatoes are natural pairings, as are tangy vinegars and lemon juice. Broccoli rabe is also wonderful with various meats and seafood, such as chicken, veal, sausage, sardines and halibut.

Perhaps the simplest way to serve broccoli rabe and appreciate its assertiveness is to saute it with olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. My family's favorite recipe for sauteed broccoli rabe includes kalamata olives and toasted pine nuts. Sun-dried tomatoes, raisins and fennel seeds are also flavor boosters.

The next time you're planning a dinner party, be bold and serve broccoli rabe for even your best company. Just don't tell my mom.

Broccoli Rabe And Mushroom Frittata With Grape Tomato Salsa

Next time you're thinking of making a spinach or broccoli frittata or omelet, consider using broccoli rabe instead for a bolder flavor. This frittata does double duty: It's ideal for either a brunch or a light midweek dinner served with a side salad and toasted Italian bread.

Broccoli Rabe And Mushroom Frittata With Grape Tomato Salsa i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Broccoli Rabe And Mushroom Frittata With Grape Tomato Salsa
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Frittata

1 medium bunch broccoli rabe, all stems removed

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 shallot, thinly sliced

2 1/2 cups white button or baby bella mushrooms, sliced

10 large eggs

1/4 cup heavy cream or half and half

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 cup grated Grana Padano or Reggiano-Parmigiana cheese, divided

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil and/or parsley

Grape Tomato Salsa

1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil and/or parsley

Preheat oven broiler.

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Boil broccoli rabe for 2 minutes. Drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Shocking the rabe will maintain its vivid green color and stop it from cooking. After a few minutes, drain.

Add oil to an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add shallot and saute 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add mushrooms and saute 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly browned.

In a large bowl, whisk eggs with cream, salt, crushed red pepper flakes and half the cheese. Pour into the skillet. With a fork, gently move the egg mixture from side to side, allowing the egg to seep to the bottom of the pan. Do this for 5 to 7 minutes, until the eggs start to solidify and a crust begins to form around the edges. Give the pan handle a jiggle, and when the eggs appear nearly set, evenly sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the frittata.

Transfer the skillet to the oven. Broil for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the top puffs up and turns golden brown. Keep a close eye on it so it doesn't burn. Let cool for a couple of minutes before slicing into wedges.

For the salsa, place all ingredients in a medium bowl and toss well. This can be made ahead of time to allow the flavors to mingle.

Serve the frittata hot or at room temperature with a spoonful of grape tomato salsa on top.

Lemony Broccoli Rabe And Cannellini Bean Crostini

This is a deliciously easy appetizer to make for parties and pairs particularly well with pinot grigio, an Italian dry white wine. For meat lovers, cook a few slices of prosciutto or Serrano ham on the stovetop until crisp. Cool and chop into small pieces and sprinkle on top of crostini.

Lemony Broccoli Rabe And Cannellini Bean Crostini i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Lemony Broccoli Rabe And Cannellini Bean Crostini
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes 10 to 12 servings

1 (1-pound) loaf crusty Italian bread, cut into 1-inch slices (about 12 slices)

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil for brushing bread

2 medium bunches broccoli rabe, stems removed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium garlic clove, finely chopped

1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

Zest of 1 small lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese for shavings

Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

Place bread slices on a large baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown. Set aside.

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Boil broccoli rabe for 2 minutes. Drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Shocking the rabe will maintain its vivid green color and stop it from cooking. After a few minutes, drain.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add olive oil. Add garlic and saute until just golden and fragrant. Add rabe and saute for 1 to 2 minutes. Add cannellini beans, lemon juice, lemon zest, saltand red pepper flakes and saute 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Top each slice of toasted bread with a small scoop of rabe and beans. Top with a shaving of cheese and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Broccoli Rabe, Fennel And Hot Sausage Pizza

This is my all-time favorite pizza. To me, nothing pairs better with broccoli rabe than Italian hot fennel sausage, which can be found at Italian markets and delis as well as many major markets that offer fresh sausage. This pizza is salty, bitter, spicy and crunchy. Enjoy it with a full-bodied red wine or a cold beer. For a speedier version, use 1 pound store-bought dough.

Broccoli Rabe, Fennel And Hot Sausage Pizza i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Broccoli Rabe, Fennel And Hot Sausage Pizza
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes a 12-inch round pizza, about 8 slices

Pizza Dough

1 (1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast

3/4 cup warm water

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon olive oil

In a medium bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water and let rest for 5 minutes. Using a spoon, gently stir in salt and sugar. Add 2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour and 1 tablespoon of olive oil to start. Blend with a spoon just until the dough starts to form, then using your hands, transfer to a floured surface. Knead well for a couple of minutes, adding flour if it's too sticky. The finished dough should be soft and smooth.

Place the dough in a large, clean bowl coated with olive oil and rub some olive oil on top of the dough. Cover with a clean, dry dishtowel and let rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size (about 2 hours). Punch the dough down to release air bubbles. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface to roll out. If you like, you can let the rolled-ut dough rest for about 30 minutes; it will rise slightly and create a puffier crust.

Pizza Toppings

4 teaspoons olive oil, divided

1 medium bunch broccoli rabe, stems removed

Salt

1/3 pound hot fennel sausage, sliced

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup shredded sharp provolone

1 small ball of fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced (1/2 to 3/4 cup)

1/3 cup grated Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese, optional

Preheat oven to 500 degrees if using a pizza stone, or 450 if using a baking sheet.

Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface. Transfer to a sheet of parchment paper (if using a stone) or to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with 1 teaspoon olive oil.

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Boil broccoli rabe for 2 minutes. Drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Shocking the rabe will maintain its vivid green color and stop it from cooking. After a few minutes, drain and sprinkle with salt.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add 1 teaspoon olive oil. Add sausage and sear 4 to 5 minutes per side, until slices are brown and crispy. Transfer to a plate.

In the same skillet over medium heat, warm 2 teaspoons olive oil. Add sliced onions and fennel. Stir occasionally until onions and fennel begin to soften and brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the rabe and crushed red pepper, and continue cooking 2 to 3 minutes. Return sausage to skillet and stir. Remove from heat.

Place the shredded provolone on the oiled dough. Arrange the sausage, fennel and broccoli rabe mixture on top. Add slices of fresh mozzarella.

For a pizza stone, bake for about 10 minutes, or until both the top and bottom of the crust is brown and the cheese is melted. For a baking sheet, bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until both the top and bottom of the crust are brown and the cheese is melted. Sprinkle with grated Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese before serving, if desired.

Sicilian Anchovy And Broccoli Rabe Pasta

This Sicilian-inspired dish is all about creating balance: Pungent broccoli rabe is tempered by briny anchovies, tart lemon and earthy pine nuts. It's also wonderful with sardines instead of anchovies.

Sicilian Anchovy And Broccoli Rabe Pasta i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Sicilian Anchovy And Broccoli Rabe Pasta
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 medium bunch broccoli rabe

8 ounces pasta, such as penne or rigatoni

3 tablespoons raisins (soaked in a little white wine)

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 (2-ounce) can anchovies in olive oil, not drained

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon salt

Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Boil broccoli rabe for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.Drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Shocking the rabe will maintain its vivid green color and stop it from cooking. After a couple of minutes, drain, squeezing out excess water.

In a large saucepan, cook pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain.

Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with a little dry white wine. Let them soak about 10 minutes to become infused with the flavor of the wine.

Crush the pine nuts either by pulsing in a food processor until a coarse mixture forms or by placing between two sheets of parchment paper and crushing with a rolling pin. In a small, dry skillet over medium heat add the crushed pine nuts and breadcrumbs. Shake pan in a back-and-forth motion until they are golden and aromatic, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add anchovies, lightly breaking them up into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Add garlic and shallots, sauteing 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add broccoli rabe and saute 2 minutes. Add cooked pasta and toss well. Add the drained raisins, lemon juice, lemon zest, crushed red pepper and salt. Toss until pasta is well coated and warmed through, 1 to 2 minutes.

Serve hot. Drizzle servings with extra-virgin olive oil.

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