Broccoli rabe is a nonheading variety of broccoli that's also known as broccoletti di rape, brocoletto, rapini, choy sum, or Chinese flowering cabbage. It has long, thin, leafy stalks topped with small florets that look like tiny broccoli florets. The florets or flowers are quite delicate; the leaves slightly bitter.
Once highly prized by the Romans and cultivated all over the southern Mediterranean, broccoli rabe didn't appear in North America until the 1920s, when Italian farmers brought it to the United States. For years broccoli rabe was favored mainly in the Italian and Asian communities here. In the old days broccoli rabe was a staple and sold for twenty-five cents a pound, maybe ten cents a pound. In my father's family broccoli rabe was used to flavor all kinds of filling dishes when meat was just too expensive. They'd have it with pasta, with potatoes - they'd even make broccoli rabe sandwiches! They had it so much that my father once swore he'd never eat it again. Now it's a yuppie food that shows up in trendy restaurants and fetches $1.98 a pound at the market.
Even though it's a little pricey now, broccoli rabe is still a great vegetable. It packs a wallop and has a bitter zest that gives a real lift to bland foods.
Broccoli rabe is most plentiful between late fall and early spring. It is grown in various places all over the continent, including Quebec, California, Arizona, and other states, so it's usually available year round, except for a couple months in midsummer - usually June and July.
At the market you'll usually find broccoli rabe displayed in a refrigerator case sprinkled with ice because it wilts very easily. Choose firm, green, small stems with compact heads. Like broccoli, the flower buds that make up the florets should be tightly closed and dark green, not open or yellow. The Andy Boy label is the top of the line when it comes to broccoli rabe and should be bought whenever possible.
Store broccoli rabe in your refrigerator crisper unwashed, either wrapped in a wet towel or in a plastic bag. It will keep two or three days. For longer storage, blanch and freeze.
To prepare, rinse thoroughly in cold water, shake off, and cut off the bottoms of the stalks (they're too tough to eat). Broccoli rabe is much better cooked than raw. Raw, it's very bitter but has no flavor. Even a light steaming brings out its distinctive taste. As a side vegetable, broccoli rabe yields only about one serving per pound because it cooks way down. You can cook it like broccoli, but whether you braise, sauté, boil, or steam it, you only need to cook it for eight to ten minutes. Most Italians like broccoli rabe al dente - cooked about six minutes. You can steam it in water or chicken broth, or sauté it with oil and garlic. Some people like it as a cold salad: steamed, then cooled and dressed with oil, hot peppers, garlic, and other seasonings. For terrific potatoes, add steamed broccoli rabe to boiled potatoes and dress with olive oil and garlic. Broccoli rabe also makes a great sauce for pasta when steamed and combined with olive oil, garlic, and hot sausages.
Grandma Albertelli's Famous Broccoli Rabe Pie
Other recipes from Produce Pete.