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Broccoli Raab, Or Cime di Rapa:

A wilder relative of broccoli

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Broccoli Rabe, from Puglia

Broccoli Rabe, from Puglia

Kyle Phillips
OR, When a P is a B and a B is a P: Italian pronunciation varies greatly from region to region, with one letter frequently replacing another. Out in the Tuscan countryside you'll hear people pronounce L with an R sound, for example -- cortello instead of coltello (knife) -- and almost all Tuscans replace the hard C with H in some occasions. Romans, on the other hand, turn that same hard C into a G, and therefore knowing where an Italian is from makes understanding the person much easier -- the Tuscan who says hasa and the Roman who says gasa would both write the word casa, and are referring to a home. Italians perform this mental shifting of gears automatically, but non-native speakers do have to think about it. And it crops up in the kitchen too: Take broccoli raab, for example. In Italian it's broccoli rape (rape pronounced raapeh, with a p). However, many south Italians harden the P sound into B, and since it's a winter staple in the south, the southern emigrants who planted it in the gardens of their new homes introduced it as broccoli rabe, with a b, and the English spelling of the Italian word rabe is roughly raab.

But what are they? Broccoli raab (Brassica rapa var. cymosa), which are also known as cime di rapa in Italy, are a wilder member of the broccoli family with small, fairly loose florets intermingled among the leaves of the plant; by comparison with broccoli, broccoli raab are much leafier and one eats the entire plant. They first appear in Italian markets in late November/early December, and they persist through March, or even April if it stays cold.

The best Italian broccoli raab are from Puglia and Campania, and are quite leafy, with slender stalks; in terms of flavor they are pungent in a turnipy sort of way (the word rapa means turnip), with pronounced mustard overtones. In the United States the D'Arrigo brothers, two Sicilians who pioneered the shipping of Californian vegetables to Boston in the 1920s, developed a variety with juicy stocks, many buds, and smaller leaves that they felt would appeal more to American consumers; by comparison with much Italian broccoli raab it's also more mildly flavored.

Selecting and storing: Broccoli raab should be a vibrant green, with fresh leaves and abundant florets that are green rather than yellow. If it looks tired or wilted, or the florets are shifting to yellow, it's not fresh and you should pass it by. When you get it home it will keep a day or two, though it's best to consume it as soon as possible.

From a nutritional standpoint, broccoli raab are low in calories and sodium. On the other hand, they're rich in calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B2, phosphorous, and are also a good source of protein and fiber. They are also a good source of pholate, which helps prevent spina bifida, and are therefore often recommended to pregnant women. And finally, they contain compounds that protect the hart, lungs, and intestines, and are thought to be cancer preventing. In short, they are quite healthy.

Cooking: Though one can eat broccoli raab raw, in a salad, they are quite bitter (and become increasingly bitter as the season progresses), and as a result it's common practice to wilt them with the water left on the leaves after they've been washed, and drain away the bitter juices before preparing them. The florets and leaves are tenderer than the stems, and therefore if the stems are large you may want to separate them from the leaves and florets and cook them a little longer. Modus in rebus, however, because if you overcook them they'll become a soft and droopy mess.

Enough Talk! Some Recipes
  • Carchiola Con Broccoli Rabe:
    Peasant food at its finest, a polenta "pizza" topped with broccoli raab.
  • Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe: Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa
    One of the most classic south Italian pasta dishes: Zesty, and quick.
    Difficulty: Easy
  • Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sardines: Orecchiette e Broccoli Rapa con Alice Salata
    Broccoli rabe and salted fish are an inspired combination, and make for a perfect pasta sauce.
    Difficulty: Easy
  • Fiery Broccoli Rabe (Rape Nfucate) and Focaccia
    Puglian winter fare, and a classic Christmas dish too. Very nice with a roast.
    Difficulty: Easy
  • Sauteed Broccoli Rabe: Broccoli Rabe Strascinati
    The traditional beginning of the Neapolitan Christmas Eve dinner, though you certainly don't have to wait for the holiday. It's also perfect with a roast.
    Difficulty: Easy

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