I love meeting new vegetables. I love cooking and eating them and getting to know what makes them tick. So please welcome Cime di Rapa. Its more familiar name is broccoli rabe, but it is not a broccoli, though it is a member of the brassica family to which broccoli also belongs.
Pronounced “CHEE-may dee RAH-pa,” it literally means “turnip tops.” As my friend, Italian food authority Julia della Croce says, “ ‘Cime,’ plural, means ‘tops.’ ‘Rapa’ (singular) means turnip. Hence, cime di rapa, 'turnip tops.'” At farmers markets and in supermarkets you’ll find bundles of green stalks often sporting yellow flowers, and it is one of the most delicious vegetables I know. Prized for its gentle bitterness, cooking mellows the flavor so that its sweetness comes through.
Julia says that “the greens are wildly popular in Italy’s sun-baked southern regions, where they were long considered carne vegetale — “vegetarian meat” — at a time when animal protein was scarce.
Cime di Rapa is known by a multitude of names, including rappini, friarelli, vrucculi and simply rapa. Each region of Italy is apt to grow several different varieties of this beloved brassica.
So how do you prepare it for cooking? When you unbundle a bunch of the vegetable you’ll notice some stalks are fairly thick and others quite thin. Cut off the thinner parts (less than 1/4-inch wide) first and set them aside. The thicker stalks (1/4-inch and thicker) need to be peeled to reveal the tender green. A sharp paring knife does a great job of stripping away the fibrous skin. Keep the flowers for cooking. Once prepped, cut the stalks and leaves into 2-inch sections. Full disclosure: This meditative task will take you 20 to 30 minutes. It’s well worth it for what you’ll be rewarded in flavor.
To serve the vegetable as a side dish, bring 3 quarts of salted water to the boil. Drop in the rapa, stir well, and cover the pot. When the water returns to the boil, uncover the pot and continue cooking, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Drain well, and run cold water over the vegetable to cool it down. You can blanch the cime di rapa hours in advance and refrigerate.
When you want to serve the rapa, heat a little olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, plus a few anchovy fillets or diced pancetta, in a skillet until the anchovy has dissolved and the garlic is a light golden brown. Add the blanched vegetable, and cook a few minutes, stirring well, until it’s heated through and tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt, and serve with any meat, fish, sausage, an egg dish, or fried tofu.
Despite the error in nomenclature, you’ll find cime di rapa labeled as broccoli rabe in most, if not all, farmers markets and supermarkets. The Chinese vegetable, gai lan, looks very much like cime di rapa, and its taste is similar, too, but a bit sweeter and less bitter. You prepare it for cooking the same way as cime di rapa.
The recipe here is a classic and pairs cime di rapa with orechiette pasta (little ears). It makes a splendid main dish and cooks in about 15 minutes. Buon appetito!
Orechiette con Cime di Rapa
Because this vegetable is usually misidentified as broccoli rabe, I list it as such here. To flavor the dish you can use pancetta or anchovies. Or to keep the dish vegetarian, add a splash of soy (tamari or regular) instead for some terrific umami oomph.
1 bunch broccoli rabe (cime di rapa), about 1 pound
14 ounces dried orechiette pasta
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces diced pancetta or 4 oil-packed anchovies, drained
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
Grated Pecorino cheese, if serving
1. Prepare the cime di rapa as described in the introductory text.
2. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and season with salt. For 3 to 4 quarts of water add 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt. Add the orechiette and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Set your timer.
3. Meanwhile, put the olive oil into a small saucepan and add the pancetta or anchovies. Set the pan over medium-low heat and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, to render some of the pancetta fat or to melt the anchovies. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook a minute or two more, or until the garlic is very lightly browned. Take the pan off the heat.
4. After the orechiette has cooked 10 minutes, stir in the prepared cime di rapa and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the orechiette are al dente and the vegetable is tender. Reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water and drain the pasta and cime di rapa in a colander.
5. Return the hot orechiette and cime di rapa to the cooking pot and stir in the olive oil brew and a splash of the cooking water. Stir to combine everything thoroughly. The dish should have a slightly creamy consistency. Add a bit more of the cooking water if you feel the dish needs it. Taste carefully and add salt if needed.
6. Serve immediately in heated pasta bowls and pass the cheese, if serving, at the table.
Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger, and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please visit his blog, www.thebakingwizard.com, and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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