If it’s April, I’m eating broccoli rage. Drat—Wordpress autocorrect did it again—I mean broccoli rabe. Despite its name (the last bit is pronounced rahb), it’s more closely related to turnips (Brassica rapa) than to regular broccoli (Brassica oleracea), and although it’s commonly described as a bitter green, I happen to think it has more of the hot, mustardy bite you’ll find in turnip greens. It makes a bracing spring tonic, and this time of year, when the rest of the world is mad for ramps, I can’t get enough of it.
Surprisingly versatile for such an assertive vegetable, broccoli rabe makes an ideal bedrock ingredient for any number of scratch suppers. You can push it in an Indian or Asian direction (flavor cues: mustard seeds, ginger), but I generally take the path of least resistance and look to Italy, where the vegetable is prized, for inspiration. Broccoli rabe packs too much of a wallop to eat raw, but cooked, it’s wonderful tossed with good-quality canned tuna (these days, I buy pole-caught American Tuna brand) and white beans; spread, along with crumbled cooked sausage and fresh white cheese, on a pizza; or served on top of polenta, with or without roast chicken.
The recipe below lends itself to improvisation, depending on time and the contents of pantry and fridge. The ingredients list calls for meaty black olives, but you could substitute roughly chopped prosciutto or even deli ham. Instead of brightening the finished dish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, drizzle with balsamic vinegar instead. My pasta of choice, by the way, is Barilla brand penne rigate, mainly because Sam bought a vast quantity of it the last time he swung by Costco, but really, any short pasta will do.
Shopping & cooking notes: Broccoli rabe (a.k.a. broccoli raab, broccoletti, broccoletti di rape, rapini, or cime di rapa) is available year-round, but it’s at its best during the cooler months. Choose a bunch that smells fresh, not cabbagey, with stems that are on the thin side, juicy looking, and smooth, not fibrous, where cut. There should be few to no yellow buds or opening flowers. When you get the bunch home, remove the twist tie that holds the stalks tightly together and store in the crisper drawer in a perforated plastic bag (or damp linen towel). Broccoli rabe is more perishable than you might think, so cook it as soon as possible. Unless it is ultrafresh and tender, blanch it briefly in salted boiling water, then drain and pat dry before sautéing. Blanching also tones down the intensity of the green, which is something to keep in mind if feeding it to children or wary adults. In general, I don’t like undercooked vegetables—they squeak when chewed and can be tough or rubbery—and broccoli rabe is no exception. Overcook it just slightly, and you’ll be rewarded with tender, soft greens that turn almost saucelike when allowed to meld with hot pasta.
Broccoli Rabe with Pasta and Olives
1 bunch broccoli rabe (about 1 pound)
A scant ½ pound penne or other short pasta
About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 fat garlic cloves, minced
About 12 Kalamata or other meaty brine-cured black olives, pitted and sliced
1. Trim off any tough or wilted leaves from the broccoli rabe and trim the stalks as well; if the stalks look fibrous, trim as much as you need to get to the juicy-looking bits. Rinse the broccoli rabe well, then add to a pot of salted boiling water. Cook until stems are tender, 3 to 5 minutes; remove from water with tongs and drain in a colander; when cool enough to handle, coarsely chop. Return the cooking water to a boil and add the pasta; cook until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water before draining pasta.
2. While pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a large skillet over moderately low heat. Add the garlic, olives, and red-pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until the garlic is golden. Add the broccoli rabe and season with salt. Increase heat to moderately high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the broccoli rabe is hottened up, 3 minutes or so. Add the pasta and toss until combined well, adding some reserved pasta water if the mixture seems dry. Serve with lemon wedges.
By the way (shameless self-promotion, here): You can find a very kind, enthusiastic write up of my blog—and some of my favorite restaurants—at thebesty.com.