Perhaps I should look at my miniscule vegetable garden more often. If I had, I might have been able to rescue my broccoli rabe from devastation. The plants were growing like nobody’s business but were riddled with, ahem, worm poo, so badly that I yanked out all the plants. The tender buds were gone but fortunately my rainbow chard remained in all its colorful glory.

rabeBut I commend the chubby green critters on their taste. Broccoli rabe, (also known as rapini, cime di rapa and raab, among others) is in the turnip cultivar group. It’s small broccoli-like heads are surrounded by a lot of leaves, all edible. It has a slightly bitter, nutty taste and is a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium, calcium and iron. I have noticed that sometimes it is much more bitter than at others. It certainly has kick. It is not to be confused with broccolini.

I grew up eating it at my Italian grandmother’s in Brooklyn, NY. It was usually swimming in olive oil, sometimes with a little red pepper flake. In all, it was an odd thing for a kid to like. But I’ve always welcomed unusual flavors to my palette. I figure I can decide later not to eat it again.

While in southern Italy in Puglia in 2006, I ate the region’s signature dish “Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa” (recipe below). I can think of few better things to fatten up on at this time of year. Orrechiette means “little ear” and is shaped as such. The Italians are big on food rules, so I never stray from this pasta shape in this dish. If they say it holds the sauce better than another shape, who am I to question?

Eating this dish is, in part, an act of keeping alive my food experiences in southern Italy. It’s hearty and uncomplicated. It also qualifies as a one-dish meal and is a good way to eat a vegetable that might get overlooked. I revisit this dish enough that I often wonder if rabe growers noticed a spike in sales in the last couple years.

I can imagine this dish served with a roasted beet salad, not only for a flavor contrast but also for color. But it can stand alone. Served with a wine from that region, like a Salice Salentino, it’s perfection. A red can hold up to this dish.

There are variations on this recipe, including adding sausage. Most recipes call for boiling the rabe. I prefer to saute it. I found no references to sprinkling fine breadcrumbs on top but it was served this way in Italy and the crunch adds dimension. (In Portland, Pasta Works sells bags of fine breadcrumbs that they make and process themselves.)

Recipe: Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa

For 4 people

1 large bunch rabe (It cooks down so you could use 2 lbs. with no problem.)

1 lb. orecchiette

4 T olive oil, or as much as needed

1 or 2 cloves garlic, crushed

5 to 8 anchovies (fear not the anchovy)

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (or more to taste)

1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water

salt to taste

fine unseasoned bread crumbs for garnish

Directions:

I get the water boiling and have the rabe washed and chopped. The cook time for the pasta and rabe is about the same so I saute the rabe just as I am putting the pasta on. Trim a bit off the ends of the rabe. The stalks are tender so don’t waste them. Cut the rabe in approximately 1- to 2-inch chunks. Wash the rabe in a bowl or salad spinner. Drain, but there’s no need to completely dry the rabe. The water left on the leaves helps it to steam a bit.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, add the crushed garlic, anchovies and red pepper flake. Saute for a few minutes till anchovies are melted, working them with a wooden spoon to break them up. Don’t let the garlic brown. In the meantime, add the pasta to salted boiling water and follow the box directions for cooking. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water about midway and set aside.

Add the chopped rabe to the skillet. It will seem like too much to fit in the pan but it will wilt quickly. You may need to add it in bunches. You might put stems in first, then add the greens a few minutes later. It is done when a fork goes easily into a stem, approximately 10 minutes. Add salt to taste but remember the anchovies have a lot of salt, so be careful.

Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the rabe. Combine the mixture well and add some of the reserved pasta water. The starch in the water interacts with the olive oil making a nice thick sauce. Let this cook down for just a couple minutes. Add more olive oil if necessary.

Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and serve hot. Buon appetito!

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