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Don’t Be Bitter, Just Cook Rapini Better

Viola Buitoni's Sauteed Broccoli Rapini with Potatoes. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul"

Viola Buitoni's Sauteed Broccoli Rapini with Potatoes. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul"

Cime di rapa (turnip tops), broccoli di rapa, broccoletti di rapa, and rape (räp’ – eh), are Italian names for what Americans dub broccoli rabe, or raab. Because the cruciferous vegetable (Brassica rapa ruvo) descends from the wild mustard plants that have carpeted the heel of Italy’s boot since ancient times, I think it deserves to keep its native name.

Insider cues:

» For Julia della Croce's tips for cooks and a note to gardeners, look below the recipe.


More from Zester Daily:

» Tips for cooking great brassicas

» Digging a winter garden

» The joy of late-season garden greens

» A culinary tour of Puglia

» The mother of all heirloom recipes from Brooklyn

The problem is that the Italians have as many different local words for it as they have political parties. In Naples it’s friariélli, in Umbria, rapi; Puglia and Lazio calls the greens broccoletti (not to be mistaken with broccolini) or just, cime, and so on. I like the affectionate-sounding compromise, rapini.

While the buds on the tops resemble those of broccoli, a member of the cabbage family, the similarity ends there. Rapini belongs to the spicy turnip tribe. Today, the broccoli with a bite has become mainstream. It has even become trendy.

Just what makes it so engaging? Leaving aside the fact that it’s loaded with vitamins and cancer-fighting compounds, it seduces you with a pungent blast unlike any other vegetable, except Chinese broccoli (same botanical family), and, if you think about it, maybe a perfectly roasted, caramelized turnip. Its pleasant bitterness gives you a surprising jab in the mouth that gets your juices flowing, making your taste buds plead for pork sausages or potatoes, foods that are usually paired with it and made sweeter by the marriage.

Tips from the original rapini experts: Italians

Still, many a bold eater willing to venture into the realm of vegetables once considered strange say they can’t get past its bitter taste. It’s no wonder. Rapini is rarely cooked properly outside the borders of Italy.

Using a small knife, separate the stems from the florets. The stems should be peeled and cut in half. Credit: Julia della Croce

I have succumbed to them in restaurants where I thought the chef surely knew how to cook them, and in precocious take-out shops where the greens, glistening like jade and studded with gilded garlic cloves, made my mouth water, only to be disappointed. They were either overcooked and stringy, or undercooked and bitter. This is not a vegetable to eat al dente, nor to benefit from a long boil, like sturdy collards.

“Broccoli rabe needs two things,” said Nina Balducci of the legendary Balducci’s in New York City, once a mecca of genuine Italian ingredients outside of Italy, “water and salt.” The trick is to first blanch it in plenty of salty water to tame its bitterness and coax out its sweet side. Then, fish it out, still dripping wet, and coddle it in plenty of good olive oil and garlic. The greens should be almost butter-tender, primed to soak up the garlicky broth. Now they’re ready to eat, or to cozy up to creamy polenta, pureed beans (try favas, chickpeas or cannellini in the style of Puglia), or succulent pork sausages.

The bitter greens get in your blood. When Andy Balducci opened the famous Greenwich Village store where his father worked the produce aisles and his mother, and his wife, Nina, cooked take-out food that the likes of Meryl Streep and Lauren Bacall took home for dinner, he flew in a few crates of cime di rapa from his native Puglia to test the waters.

The buds on the florets should be tight and green. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

“It was a tradition in Corato, my home town,” said Andy, who sold the grocery in 1999. “My friend grew it in his orto and his dream was to export it to Bari, the nearest city, 24 kilometers away. In those days, by horse and cart, it was like from here to heaven,” he laughed. “We didn’t sell it raw. Mom cooked it when it was available and we always sold out right away.” The D’Arrigo Brothers, California farmers and owners of Andy Boy who supplied Balducci’s with broccoli, perused the cooked foods whenever they visited.  They’d ask the Balducci’s about the vegetable everyone was making such a fuss over.

Eventually, they decided to grow it themselves from heritage seeds. Outside of Puglia, even in many parts of Italy, the vegetable is unknown — except wherever Andy and Nina Balducci go. The couple have been known to travel with crates of it in tow. “We’ve introduced it to the Bahamas,” said Nina.

 Pairing rapini with potatoes

We might be led to think that Puglia, which loves bitter greens overall (cime, chicory, escarole, dandelions), could claim them as their own. “Oh no,” says Viola Buitoni, San Francisco cooking teacher and scion of the Perugia-based Buitoni family, producers of pasta and chocolate since the early 19th century. “Rape/rapi/broccoletti whatever you call them are very common in Umbria and also, Lazio. Our housekeeper made them, so I know they were an Umbrian tradition,” she said. “In fact, there’s a type of rapini I love that’s native to the Trasimeno known as rapini del lago, “rapini of the lake.” Seems there is yet another delicious Italian vegetable to be “discovered” and transplanted in America.

Probably my favorite rapini dish is one that Viola makes. She tosses garlicky rapi, as she calls them, with crisp-cooked potatoes. “[It’s] a dish that was a staple on our table because it’s a way to make good use of leftover potatoes. The leafy greens that were most common in our household in fall and winter were rapi.” It is a very fine dish to add to your cold weather repertoire.

Viola Buitoni’s Sautéed Broccoli Rapini With Potatoes

(Rapi e Patate alla Viola Buitoni)

Serves 6 for a side dish

America has at last discovered this wonderful vegetable, but I’m convinced that people would like it more if it were prepared correctly. The secret to cooking broccoli rapini is to boil the greens briefly before sautéing to rid them of their excessive bitterness and to tenderize the stalks. Some people discard the stalks, but the thicker ones, once peeled, are delicious. To avoid overcooking the delicate buds, cook the stems for a minute first before adding the florets to the pot. After draining, the rapini are finished in the saute pan with olive oil and garlic. This second step when cooking vegetables is called “ripassare,” meaning that the vegetable is passed again in the frying pan.

Ingredients

2 Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled

1 bunch broccoli rapini, about 1½ pounds

1 tablespoon sea salt

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

6 large cloves garlic, bruised but left whole

Directions

1. In a saucepan, combine the potatoes with enough cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. They should be fully tender but not falling apart when cooked. When cool enough to handle, peel the skin from the potatoes, cut them lengthwise into quarters, and then cut crosswise into medium-thin slices. Set aside and let them cool.

2. Detach the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Using a small, sharp knife, peel the skin from the thicker lower stalks of the rapini (most of the bottom portion of the stalk) and cut them crosswise into approximate 2-inch lengths.

3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the peeled stems along with the salt, cover partially, and cook over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Now add the florets and cook them together with the stems until the vegetable is tender but not mushy, 3 to 4 minutes more. Note that if the stalks are at all crisp, they will remain bitter. Drain the greens, reserving a little of the cooking liquid and set it aside separately.

4. In a nonstick skillet large enough to accommodate the potatoes and the greens, warm the olive oil over low heat and add the garlic. Sauté over medium heat until the garlic is nicely softened but not colored, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a side dish. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the cooked potatoes. Sauté until they are golden and crispy all over, about 12 minutes, then transfer to another side dish. Warm the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-low heat, return the rapini and the garlic cloves to the pan. Sauté until the greens are nicely coated with the olive oil and the garlic and heated through, about 3 minutes; if they appear a little dry, add a little of the reserved cooking water as needed. Return the potatoes to the skillet and toss all together. Adjust for seasoning and serve immediately.

* * *

TIPS FOR COOKS

Buy only very fresh rapini. The base of the stalks ought to be cream colored and crisp, not brown and curled. The leaves should be perky and ruffled, not dried out and floppy, and the buds bright green, never yellow.

The thicker stalks are meant to be eaten but need to be peeled before cooking, like mature asparagus.

To avoid overcooking the florets, boil the peeled stems for a minute before adding the florets to the salted water. Continue to the cook stems and tops together for 3-4 minutes until tender but not mushy. Drain and saute as described in the recipe.

* * *

A NOTE TO GARDENERS

Rapini hate heat. In Italy, they’re planted in September for harvesting in November and December. Farmers markets where I live in the Northeast try their hand at them but they’re not successful. The plants have too many tough stalks are all leaves, and have few, if any, buds. Brassica rapa ruvo (rapini) need Mediterranean or California-type weather to thrive.

Top photo: Viola Buitoni’s Sauteed Broccoli Rapini With Potatoes. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul”



Zester Daily contributor Julia della Croce is the author of  "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" (Kyle Books), "Pasta Classica" (Chronicle) and 12 other cookbooks.

42 COMMENTS
  • RisaG 10·6·13

    Great article with tips. I have had success and failure with this veg. I luv it.

  • Patricia Pond 10·6·13

    Excellent tips, especially boiling the stems first, for a poor misunderstood green. I love it, but know many who do not. I’m thrilled now that’s it readily available in many markets. When I was young, in the 60s, my Italian dad grew it; that was the only way we got to have it.
    I will try the Rapini with Potatoes, sounds like the perfect side. Thanks for a very useful article!

  • June Jacobs 10·6·13

    Julia, the Migliorelli family who are at Union Square Wed, Fri, Sat. grow broccoli rabe successfully. Their farm is in the Upper Hudson Valley.

  • Gabriella 10·7·13

    I can’t imagine its that much of a blanket failure across the whole northeast! I got a bunch of it at the Amherst Farmers market up here in MA this year, and Ill admit that it was a little stalky but still delicious. (I cooked it properly peeleed and following your family recipe, of course.)

    I love the way you describe what’s required to make a sweet marriage pairing with it!

  • Peter Felker 10·7·13

    This was a nice article. We are profiling the glucosinolates in rappini to work on flavor changes. It would be nice to share some of the various rappini lines for you to taste

    Peter Felker
    Research Scientist
    D’Arrigo Bros

  • Julia della Croce 10·7·13

    Can’t wait, Peter, and looking forward to talking to you.

  • Barbara 10·7·13

    I was thrilled to read this, as I will be leaving for Puglia shortly! Plan to take advantage of the tips, Grazie mille!

  • Viola Buitoni 10·7·13

    Thank you Julia for including my wisdom, it is an honor.
    http://violabuitoni.com/

  • Phyllis @ Oracibo 10·7·13

    OK…I’m now going to try once again to cook this veg. With all the tips and hints about how to properly prepare them, I’m hoping for a better outcome than when I tried to sauté it before, sort of like a Chinese stir-fry with garlic…it was bitter and I love turnips!! From what I can gather from this post, I did not cook them long enough! Thanks for all the info.

  • Germaine 10·8·13

    Good article. Miss Viola’s recipe and directions are the best I have seen. When I was a kid, the peeled stems were the only pre-meal snack allowed for me and my sister. I did the peeling. We have always liked the Andy Boy broccoli raab the best; and the fact that the family is a big contributor to breast cancer research makes their raab taste better for me. Another little story: When there was a green market in the plaza at the World Trade Center, that upstate family previously mentioned would bring their raab, tied with twine as is their custom and lay it out. When I would sort through the pile to pick out my perfect bunch, the son who was already an adult, would yell at me, saying that was not allowed. Of course, I would just ignore him. Most pizzerias and similar type restaurants don’t do the raab justice, so these type articles insure that others prepare it just right.

  • W.F. "Pierino" Tierney 10·8·13

    I still don’t understand the American antipathy towards “bitter” anything. In Italy it’s a source of delight. Nobody in Rome is going to complain that their ciccoria is too bitter. A few years back I was engaged to do a two night cooking job in Denver and I was perplexed when the salad plates would come back to the kitchen with the radicchio untouched.

  • Karen 10·8·13

    Thank you! I just moved back to the Northeast from the Midwest, where rapini could be hard to find, and when it was available was very often sad, limp and yellowing. I couldn’t have been more pleased to see a huge display of fresh, beautiful broccoli rabe at my local grocery store last weekend on sale! Feels like home…

  • Judith Klinger 10·8·13

    As always, well done article…brava! Here in Umbria, bitter greens are just starting to fill the markets and I’ve been serving it to guests for the past few weeks. You’d think they never had cooked greens before!
    It’s a whole classification, usually just called ‘erbe’ and you absolutely must blanch those bitter greens first. I thought I’d preserve more vitamins if I skipped the blanch step…wrong…the greens were inedible. Doesn’t matter if they have more vitamins if you can’t eat them! There’s a very good reason why it’s traditional to blanch first..don’t be tempted to skip that step.
    Happy Fall!

  • Julia della Croce 10·8·13

    Interesting messages fromZD readers, as usual. To “Pierino,” I would say that rapini are in a different taste category than the Roman puntarelle and the cicoria that Puglia in particular loves, as well as various other bitter greens. That bitterness is quite pleasant, even addictive, if you were to ask me, but the bitterness of unboiled rapini makes them inedible in my view. You are not alone in loving that bitterness, though. I think the propensity for it might have to do with one’s own chemistry, for one thing. For another, I know that our food likes are formed at near infancy based on what we are fed as babies. SImply put, we like what our forms our palates at a tender age. I would love to know how other readers feel about the bitterness we’re talking about?

  • Germaine 10·9·13

    Hi Julia. The bitterness has never bothered me or my family. I believe that taste is an integral part of Italian cooking, and what fundamentally makes this cuisine so fascinating, complex and balanced. I love the puntarelle and cicoria dishes as well. It could also be that we may reject the older vegetables we see in the market, pick only the freshest; and cook the vegetables correctly. I think the older vegetables may actually pick up bitterness, or staleness as they age or were picked or shipped to market late. This is anecdotal but I personally feel that overcooking the raab brings out the bitterness more. To me, bright green cooked raab tastes just right; and overcooked raab that has a dull green dark color seems more bitter. Not scientific. Does that make sense?

  • Giovanna 10·9·13

    Thank you for the recipe. I love this veggie, but used only for pasta with cime until today. I will try it for sure! So maybe my family will fall in love it too.

  • Julia della Croce 10·9·13

    Hi Germaine, I have also noticed that rapini that are not fresh are somewhat more bitter, and also have less flavor.

  • Julia della Croce 10·9·13

    Giovanna, I hope you will tell us the results!

  • Linda Florio 10·11·13

    One of our favorite vegetables and after cooking it for many years, it has become a regular at our table. We love the nutty and bitter flavor. Thank you for the lovely recipe.

  • David W 10·11·13

    I’ve never had the chance to try this vegetable, but thankfully now I know that it is potentially delicious. Thanks again, Julia! Such an informative article!

  • enter name 10·12·13

    Wonderful article! Thank you for reminding us of this beloved soul comforting vegetable!

    Rape are enjoyed in southern italy and sicily as well where they are often eaten with a drizzle of lemon. I have recently begun putting a bay leaf in the sautee pan with the garlic and find that it adds a beautiful complexity to the flavor and tempers the more pungent aspects of the vegetable.

  • Tony May 10·14·13

    Julia, Friarielli are (primizia) early broccoli di rape in the Neapolitan region, otherwise they are simply known as broccoli di rape. There are two ways two cook them. The only way is the the Balducci recipe in the south (from Naples on down south), the boiling first system, is a way to cook the stems and the larger leafs as well. This method takes away a lot of their bitterness that is typical of this vegetable. the reality is that this vegetable was born in the south and other varieties are much tougher and therefore the boiling first makes sense. In Roma Broccoli di rape are boiled first everywhere. My very best always Tony may

  • G 6·3·14

    I buy Andy Boy rapini in the supermarket year-round, but last week at a farmer’s market here in Boston I saw it and bought some. The stalks were thinner than the Andy Boy, it was pleasantly bitter but less so than the one in the supermarket, and it was, of course, much fresher. The window for growing it may be shorter in the Northeast than in some other climates (we had a very cool May, which might have helped) but it is available and at least this particular one that I picked up was some of the best I’ve had.

  • Bitter and loving it 6·22·14

    Thanks for the article, it is well-written. My family prepares it without parboiling it, I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much using your method, but I appreciate the alternative parboiling, because while I might not use it for raba I would try it on escarole.

  • Amy 6·27·14

    I grew rapini for the first time this year and I love it! It has grown quite well in my garden in Vermont, I have harvested my small plot at least three times (about 10-12 small plants) and gotten 3 meals worth with more to come – maybe it has just been a great growing year but it makes me very happy!

  • isabel 7·18·14

    Glad I came across this. I have just started buying rapini and now know how to cook it properly.

  • jimmy 8·14·14

    both rapini and chinese gai lan have the slight bitter taste that we all come to love but rapini has another layer of funny after-taste in the tongue where as gai lan just have the nice slight bitter flavor. how do i describe it, when you first eat rapini, it taste like gai lan, then it leaves a funny taste in the tongue and it’s not the bitter taste causing it. it’s that after-taste that makes it impossible to substitute for gai lan for stir fry.

  • PROGERS 8·22·14

    An friend of mine of Italian heritage cooked it for me and she added chicken broth – it was really smooth and sharp in taste. I am going to make this Sunday with the potatoes in it – making a Tuscan brick chicken on the grill – this will be spectacular.

  • Expat 9·28·14

    I love a Mario Batali recipe for rapini that he said he observed in Italy. Essentially slow cook it for a long time (20+ minutes) in a covered pot with plenty of olive oil and some garlic. You cook it until it’s meltingly tender. My only tweak is to blanch it in saltwater for about a minute first to temper the bitterness as this article mentions. It comes out very intensely flavored and practically dripping off the fork. Some people don’t like the bitterness or the texture but others, like me, love it. I’ll try this exact version to compare. I like the idea of peeling the stems and boiling them longer to break them down while not overcooking the florets.

    As an aside, I used to think all vegetables should be a little crispy until I had a dish in Little Italy that I think was zuchinni, so cooked it was almost liquid and swimming in olive oil. I used to gag at soft zuchinni but this was beyond that. I just went with it and it was unctuous and incredible. I found a recipe called stufato that I think is basically it.

  • ANDREW 11·10·14

    The beauty of rapini is the bitterness – and with the right combo – little has to be done to it!
    I suggest don’t blanche them at all – straight into pan with garlic and olive oil, plus red pepper flake and a touch of white wine – a tip from Mary Ann Esposito! She also added cured olives in oil – which I haven’t tried. I just had some with Italian sausage, garlic, mini potatoes, shallots and mushrooms (and a little oregano) – OMG! I also threw in a half cup of red wine with the sausage – oh God!!!!

  • ANDREW 11·10·14

    I just realised who you are Julia – I have your Umbria cookbook which is stained and falling apart because I use it always – lentil and sauage – roasted potatoes with fennel – all beautiful recipes!!
    I want to share with you that I moved from being a “caker” who ate frozen food reheated to a struggling amateur because someone served me Rapini!! I decided I have to lern to cook – and I love all things Italian – and although I know I have a long way to go – my food journey is amazing because of Rapini – the sacrament of good bitterness 🙂
    Thank you for the inspiration u provided in the Umbria cookbook – my life is better because of your offerings – special THANK YOU from Toronto, Canada.

  • Jeffrey 12·20·14

    Jimmy may be on to something. I just tried rapini for the first time last night, by my usual simple method for vegetables of steaming, then adding lemon juice and a bit of grated parmesan. It was bitter, all right, but there was some incredibly powerful, almost chemical aftertaste, like shower cleaner. Whew. I’m still alive today so it can’t have been too bad. Anyway, I’ll try the blanching method next time, also perhaps mixing with other things, as in these recipes, instead of having it by itself as a side, would help cut the intensity.

  • Julia della Croce 1·26·15

    I’m afraid I didn’t see these fairly recent comments until now and would have liked to answer them. Hopefully, the recent readers will check in. About the bitterness of broccoli rabe, “broccoletti” to many Italians, many southern Italians, like the Asians, love “bitter,” and par-boiling the greens are unthinkable to them—the braised version, rapine “stufati” (the one the “expat” mentions) is the typical way of cooking of them. Not everyone is fond of this flavor (though I love it), as you can see from the great Tony May’s comments above (Tony is the restaurateur who has presided over numerous great authentic Italian restaurants in NYC, including San Domenico and Gemelli and his current, SD26 on Madison Park). Because of America’s preference for sweeter broccoli rabe, the D’Arrigo Brothers growers, the original growers of the greens, have bred a sweeter rabe over the years. Some Italians living here, accustomed to the greens that grow in Italy, complain that those broccoli rabe are not bitter enough. Thought the recent commentators might be interested in these additional notes from me. And Andrew, it warms my heart to know that my book, Umbria, is so well used in your house!

  • Campana, Elise 2·8·16

    I bought rapini because it looked so fresh and green and reasonably priced. I googled the recipes and found that the Italian was most appealing, with blanching to remove some of the bitterness. I cooked it with sweet italian sausage, and added posstatoes. It has a smooth taste and something more that gets your mouth to savor and want more. Thanks. Elise

  • Janet 6·15·16

    So I tried parboiling and peeling the stems and I liked the results. When my family cooks this they cook it down in the pan but it’s sometimes too bitter for me. My house has never smelled more like Nonna’s :). Thanks!

  • Julia della Croce 6·16·16

    Warms my heart–thanks for letting me know, Janet.

  • Frank Braglia 7·11·16

    Is it o k to put sugar with my salt in the boiling water before I put the rapini in the water ?

  • Diana Caverhill 7·15·16

    Hi I have not tried the blanching with my rapini. I usually just sauté it in olive oil and garlic along with vinegar, either regular white, wine vinegar or sometimes even balsamic.. I find that really cuts down on the bitterness. I will also add some crushed tomatoes But I an going to try cooking the stems first and then the heads. I usually cook with the lid on for about 20-30min and it can get a little mushy. This is a great vegetable…. I love it… Going to make some now…. Yummy

  • Julia della Croce 7·16·16

    For Frank: Sorry for the delay; I’ve been away from my desk for a bit. About putting sugar in the water, I don’ t know what the results would be but you might try it. It certainly won’t alter the chemistry of the plant. The way to take away some of its bracing bitterness is, as I wrote, to parboil it for 2-3 minutes; drain and from there you can sauté in in a skillet with good olive oil and garlic, hot pepper too, if you like.

    For Diana: In regions where cime di rapa (“rapini” in Sicilian dialect) are a cult vegetable such as Puglia, Campania and Calabria, it is often cooked as you have been doing, braised directly in then pan. We never did it this way in my household. My grandmother came from Bari, Puglia, and she always boiled it briefly before sautéing it in olive oil and garlic, or when making it with orecchiette (very traditional). The vegetable has an entirely different flavor when it is first boiled in salted water. Let me know how you like it cooked that way. Happy cooking!

  • Dionisia 8·14·16

    Thank you so much for this posting. The sweetness in the rapini came out after the blanching. I still remember how i hated this vegetable when i was in Italy because of the bitterness. But now I have developed a taste for it and this instruction to boil it first with salt now makes it even better!

  • Julia della Croce 8·14·16

    Boiling both sweetness and brings out the flavors. That’s why I’m for boiling rather than steaming vegetables in general. You can see the science behind this in another article I wrote for Zester called “Love Me Tender” The Sultry Italian Way With Vegetables.” Here’s the link: http://zesterdaily.com/cooking/love-me-tender-italian-green-beans-and-vegetables/

  • Viginia Luther 2·9·17

    Thank you so much for the recipe.

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