Now that summer is slipping into fall, the familiar broccoli heads will be joined by strange family members with names like broccoli rabe (or raab), broccolini, and Chinese kale.
They are all members of the super nutritious cabbage family, but not all are closely related to broccoli. They are, however, all worthy table vegetables. They provide cooks with a variety of ways to preserve nutrition, but they vary in flavor and texture from more familiar cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and turnips.
Let’s start with the broccoli rabe. In North America and parts of Italy, this vegetable has various names. It is closely related to the turnip and wild mustard that covers the boot fields of Italy, just as it does here in Wine Country in late winter. In Canada, a hybrid variety is widely grown as oilseed rape (pronounced rah-pa); the seeds are pressed for canola oil and the husks of the seeds are used to make Metamucil. Erucic acid, a toxic component of its seed oil, has been extracted from this variety. The edible forms we find in our stores have not removed the toxic compound, but we only eat the green stems, leaves, and flowers, not the seeds. The vegetable is deeply bitter. In Italy, it may be called cime di rapa (turnip clusters), broccoletti di rapa, friarielli, rapi, spring raab, ruvo kale, and rapini. But it’s almost always called broccoli rabe here in North America.
The Italians know how to cook it in a 2-stage process that greatly reduces its chewiness and bitterness. First, they parboil it in a generous amount of highly salted water for just 2-3 minutes. Undercooked, it will still be stringy and bitter. But if it’s overcooked, it will have turned to mush. To prevent flower buds from overcooking, Italian cooks often remove them and add them to the boiled water at the last minute. If the stems are older and tougher at the ends, it is common for Italian cooks to peel them with a vegetable peeler or a very sharp knife.
Parboiling is essential, but timing is critical. Remove the parboiled broccoli rabe from the water, drain, and transfer to a skillet over medium heat. Add anchovies for a savory flavor, plus lots of garlic, and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes. When serving, sprinkle with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
The result is a great side dish for savory Italian main dishes like Italian-style pork sausage, polenta, or mashed fava or cannellini beans, and especially as a pizza topping. It’s one of the reasons pizza in Italy, ubiquitous there, is to most American pizzas what a good German sausage is to a hot dog. The bitterness, now controlled by parboiling, makes the salty partner taste sweeter.
Broccolini is a hybrid between regular broccoli and Chinese kale, a cross made in 1993. Someone called it Asparation, probably the worst name for a vegetable, because it supposedly tasted vaguely like asparagus. That name was soon dropped in favor of broccolini. Its season is really from summer to autumn and winter, and so it is commonly found in our markets. If you don’t like the bitterness of broccoli rabe, broccolini is a good substitute. He is more tender and sweet than any of his parents. Their long stems, small leaves, and tiny flower buds will also turn to mush if overcooked, so sauté them for 3 minutes or more and taste them as you go to see when, for you, it’s tender and sweet enough.
Finally, Chinese kale, also known as Chinese or gai-lan broccoli, belongs to the same genus and species as broccoli, cauliflower, and common cabbage. It has thick stems, lots of large leaves, tiny buds, and a flavor that is more reminiscent of broccoli than regular broccoli. If you go to a good Chinese restaurant and order a “happy family” dinner, you will most likely find it among the other ingredients. In Vietnamese restaurants, it can be floating in the pho. If you use it in your home kitchen, you can put it in any good stir-fry.
Sautéed broccoli rabe
Makes 3 to 4 servings
This recipe for sautéed broccoli rabe is simple, although it does involve parboiling, an extra step. Parboiling quickly softens thick stems. Learn to love bitterness as it enhances and sweetens the savory main course.
1 bunch of broccoli rabe
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 flat anchovy fillets
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or passed through a garlic press
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
freshly ground black pepper
Lemon slice, to squeeze
Trim ½-inch off ends of broccoli and separate tips from flower buds. Prepare a large pot of boiling salted water and a large bowl of ice water. Drop the broccoli rabe stems into the boiling water and blanch for 2 minutes. Add the tops and blanch for a final minute. Remove everything and soak in the ice water long enough to chill, then drain.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Put the anchovy fillets in the oil and mash with the back of a fork until smooth.
Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then add the red pepper flakes.
Add all of the broccoli rabe and sauté, shaking the pan and tossing gently to cook evenly until tender, especially the stems, for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the pan to a serving bowl, add salt and pepper to taste, and give the vegetables a splash of lemon juice. Serve hot as a side dish.