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Give Healthy Broccoli Rabe the Tasty Italian Treatment

Broccoli rabe with garlic and olive oil. Credit: LittleNY Photograhy and Design/iStock

Broccoli rabe with garlic and olive oil. Credit: LittleNY Photograhy and Design/iStock

Broccoli rabe is the new spinach, as one twentysomething, let-me-reinvent-the-wheel food blogger called it. Yeah, broccoli rabe is healthy, but if it doesn’t taste great no one will eat it.

Let’s get rid of some confusion: broccoli rabe, broccoli rape, broccoli raab, rapini, Chinese flowering cabbage are all the same thing. It’s unrelated to spinach. But we can’t get rid of all confusion because broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, rapini and turnip tops are all botanically related.

Furthermore cime di rape, friarelli and broccoli rabe are often confused by the very people who are famous for cooking them, the Neapolitans. You’ve got to admire a people who have a website devoted to friarelli, though. Friarelli refers specifically to young broccoli rabe, and the dish is made by boiling the vegetables in water, draining them, and then frying them in olive oil with garlic and salt.

Broccoli rabe is very popular in southern Italy, where this bitter tasting green is cooked in a variety of ways to make it more palatable. It has been popular for a long time. Plutarch, the second-century Greek essayist, wrote about broccoli rabe in a story about the Roman general Manius Curius, who, after a long and successful career, retired to his modest home in the country. One day some Samnite ambassadors came and found him boiling greens like broccoli rabe or turnip tops. They offered him some gold and he responded by asking why a person satisfied with such a supper would need gold.

Raw broccoli rabe. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Raw broccoli rabe. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

I was in Naples when I first had friarelli at the restaurant Donna Margherita at Vico Alabardieri. The dish called salsicce e friarelli was made of sausage taken out of its skin and flattened into two patties and fried in olive oil along with the friarelli that was cooked in olive oil, garlic and red chile flakes. This was served with French fries and lemon. It was great.

On another occasion I had pizza con salsiccia e friarelli, and I thought this one of the finest pizzas I’ve ever had. It’s sometimes called pizza pulcinello, named after Pulcinella, the comic character of the 17th-century Neapolitan commedia dell’arte. The pizza is made with mozzarella and small slices of sausages and drizzled olive oil. When I had it the crust was thick with risen sides and it was cooked in a wood-fired oven, which left appetizing black marks on the bottom of the pizza.

A simple broccoli rabe preparation is easy and brings out the richness of the hearty vegetable. You can use it to top a pizza or pair it with sausage like the dishes I enjoyed in Naples, or use it in myriad other ways because it’s versatile in its simplicity.

Boil the broccoli rabe until soft in about 12 minutes then drain and transfer to a sauté pan with some olive oil and chopped garlic. Sizzle for a few minutes then serve with salt and lemon juice if desired.

Broccoli rabe with garlic and olive oil. Credit: LittleNY Photography and Design/iStock

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).

  • Barbara Lauterbach 4·23·13

    Thanks so much! Just bought a bunch of beautiful broccoli rabe, and now I know how I’m fixing it tonight! happen to have salsiccia, maybe I won’t wait until dinner.