A vegetable with many names, this delicious brassica has found a New World home in the Salinas Valley
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
It’s early spring and not many sexy new spring vegetables are on the market tables yet. Now is the time to venture into uncharted territory and experiment with healthy, spiked leaf bunches of broccoli rabe, also known as broccoli raab or rapini. This tasty green, with its tender thin stems, complements rich meats like lamb and pork, adds a mustardy, slightly bitter—yet nutty—punch to carb-laden dishes like polenta and pasta and gives nice flavor and texture when steamed or sautéed and added to sandwiches made on a thick baguette soaked with olive oil and vinegar.
A cruciferous turnip relative, broccoli rabe is also called Italian turnip greens and cima di rapa. In Italian, rape is the name for turnip, and broccoli rabe is a close cousin to the turnip family and tastes similar, as all varieties are a cross of wild mustard and wild Italian turnip varietals. It is commonly marketed as broccoli rabe, a name registered as a trademark in 1964 by the Salinas Valley farming company D’Arrigo Brothers, the largest commercial grower of this vegetable in the country, surpassing 4,000 acres annually. Monterey County is the top broccoli rabe producing county in the nation, and California grows 90% of the crop; in winter the specialty Italian vegetable is grown in the desert of the Imperial Valley.
Broccoli rabe has been grown and eaten by Southern Italians forever, although there is a dispute between Italians and Chinese as to where the plant originated and what it is called. The D’Arrigo brothers, Sicilian immigrants, made it popular when they recognized the plant they were familiar with from their home country growing wild locally in 1927. A few years later they focused on plant breeding, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the bitter broccoli relative finally took off, in large part due to Italian immigrants that had moved to cities on the West and East Coasts, making the crop a staple in their kitchen. D’Arrigo Brothers has been the largest grower-shipper of the specialty vegetable ever since and has a patent on the name “Broccoli Rabe,” which is why you may see it labeled as rapini or broccoli raab by small market farmers that use non-patented seed varietals. Asian farmers call it choy sum, or sell the vibrant purple, anthocyanin-rich hon tsai tai—my personal favorite for the amazing color contrast of the bright yellow flower buds and purple stalks.
An interesting fact, not all of the turnip family varietals are grown and used as a healthy cooked vegetable. Turnip or rapeseed has been used as industrial oil, and its byproduct—the meal—is used as a cheap protein source for most all factory farmed animals, second only to soybeans. Rapeseed is naturally high in erucic acid, which can be damaging to cardiac muscles, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was bred to be low in this acid and touted as a healthy cooking oil for human consumption, now called canola oil.
Regardless of the lower erucic acid levels, this oil is actually terrible for both the consumer and the environment due to the high amounts of omega-6 fats it contains, along with it being genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, which leaves a toxic residue on the crop. In order to extract the oil, most processes use solvents, or at the very least heat extraction, which change the chemical makeup of the oil. Recycled rapeseed oil is also used for biodiesel, in my opinion a much better use.
HOW TO PREPARE
Broccoli rabe, the vegetable, is actually quite good for you. It contains cancer fighting sulfur compounds, vitamins A, C, K and potassium. Look for bunches with tender, thin stems and fresh-looking leaves, as they are the least bitter and most tender. The small head that resembles baby broccoli should have tight flower buds not yellow flowers. However, this crop tends to flower easily with warm temperatures. So if the rest of the bunch looks fresh, a few open flowers are fine as they are edible and can make a nice garnish on a salad or be added to a stir fry for an added mustard flavor.
The whole bunch is typically eaten, but I recommend trimming the bottom of the shoots as they have likely dried out. If the stalks are thick, consider peeling off the skin for a more tender vegetable. Often broccoli rabe is blanched in hot salted water for a minute or two before being sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chili pepper, says La Balena owner Emanuele Bartolini, who serves it braised alongside a roast or coated in oil and grilled. My favorite way to eat broccoli rabe is to grind it up as a pesto and put it on a cornmeal crust pizza, sneak it into mac and cheese for a vitamin boost or for breakfast—chop broccoli rabe in bite-sized pieces and sauté in truffle oil or spicy pepper-infused oil, add a poached egg on top and some sunflower or pumpkin seeds. Rapini also lends well to a chopped salad—simply blanch and chop and mix in with crunchy vegetables like cucumbers and shredded carrots. Add some diced red onions, Kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes, capers, juice of Meyer lemons, olive oil, and salt and pepper, to taste. So versatile and so good!
GROWING AND STORING
Local organic farms like Happy Boy and Live Earth grow it and customers love it. Jenn Lynne grew up eating rapini with her Italian family. She’s the wholesale manager of Happy Boy and says they grow it mainly in winter and early spring as the pests—especially lepidopteran worm larvae—like to dine on the leaves when the ground warms up, causing the vegetable to be undesirable to chefs and market shoppers. One way to manage this organically is to cover the crop with a material called Agribon, which is basically fine-spun polyester that allows in light, water and nutrients but protects the crop from being eaten. Some farmers just prefer to grow it at certain times of the year when the soil is cold and pests are not an issue to avoid the costs of the material and the labor needed to apply and remove it. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is an approved organic, naturally-occurring bacterium that makes protein that is toxic to immature insects like worm larvae and can keep pests at bay with multiple applications.
Broccoli rabe grows from seed to shoot in 45–75 days and prefers cooler temperatures, but not freezing. Commercial growers plant 18 lines of seeds 4 inches apart and ¼-inch deep, and harvest when the crop is 6–8 inches tall before the seed buds begin to open. The seeds are so small it is easy to overplant and it is likely the seedlings will need to be thinned to make space for them to grow. When temperatures get warmer and the day lengths longer, the plant will easily bolt, which means it will elongate and attempt to flower. This makes for a tougher stem, which is undesirable, so keep your eye on your crop. This is one frustrating thing about growing spring broccoli rabe; in my experience it usually flowers before you can sell half the crop!
To harvest, take a knife and cut the stem at ground level. If you are lucky and the weather stays cool, the plant will grow back, giving you two or three harvests from the same planting.
In a home garden you have the benefit of harvesting right before eating. If you do need to store it, rinse, shake off the excess water and put it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to five days.
Local Foods in Season: March, April and May
- Cactus Pears*
- Bok Choy
- Broccoli Raab
- Brussels Sprouts
- Fava Beans and Greens
- Mustard Greens
- Pea Shoots
*May only ** March and April only
***April and May only
- Crab, Dungeness
- Grenadier, Pacific
- Halibut, California*
- Lingcod, Pacific
- Rock Cod, aka Snapper or Rockfish
- Sablefish, aka Black Cod
- Salmon, King
- Sanddabs, Pacific
- Seabass, White
- Sole (Dover and Petrale)
- Spot Prawns
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and are found in abundance in local waters. See seafoodwatch.org for more information.