I crave and desire and savor rapini. Insofar as this vegetable is sometimes known as “rape,” one might say I’m having rape fantasies. As a vegetarian, I often eat leafy greens, but I never crave them. I never imagine the satisfaction I’ll feel as soon as I close my lips around that first, potent, slightly bitter bite of… chard or spinach or kale. Mustard greens come closer (and indeed rapini is of the same family, Brassica). But there is no substitute, believe me.
It remains a mystery to me why more people don’t eat (or even know about) this King of Greens. The Italians, who love all sorts of weeds, celebrate rapini and gave it its name (“little turnip-tops”). But turnip greens do little to arouse my desire. Rapini does much.
I’m not particularly enamored of bitter greens, and indeed, I can barely eat radicchio because of the bitter taste (I’m one of those people who finds grapefruit rather bitter, and I have no fondness for Campari, though an occasional G. and T. is welcome). But I will never say no to rapini.
Because of the little clusters of green flowers, it looks a bit like broccoli (hence the alternative name “broccoli rabe”) but tastes nothing like it. And you don’t need the flowers. My garden rapini has virtually no flowers and is fantastic. It’s all about the leaves.
I’ve been disappointed in restaurants (including some rather highly-regarded ones) to find it heinously overcooked, to the point where it appears brownish rather than bright green, as the gods intended. The best way to cook it is to get a pot of water boiling, then dump in the chopped leaves and blanch them. Not for “two to three minutes” as many recipes advise. This will overcook your rapini. Let it boil for no more than thirty seconds, maybe fifteen, then remove it and squeeze out the extra moisture. Ideally you would give it a quick dunk in icewater before draining, but I find that this step is not necessary to preserve the bright green color. Let there be no impediments (in the form of fussy cooking and extra steps) to the marriage of rapini and the appreciative palate.
Next, put a bit of olive oil in a pan and get it hot, then add the rapini and a few cloves chopped garlic, as well as red pepper flakes if you like them. Let this sizzle for a few minutes until the garlic is cooked and the oil has very lightly coated the leaves. (Drowning it in oil is another common mistake). Now your hopeful vegetable is ready for one of two ideal uses.
(1). Salt it, squeeze on a few drops of lemon juice, and eat it as a side dish, hot or cold.
(2). Add it to pasta with all sorts of other goodies, olives or oven-dried tomatoes or whatever you’ve got in the fridge. It’s great with goat or feta cheese on the one hand, or hard sharp Italian cheeses on the other. Sometimes I make a creamy sauce of goat cheese diluted with water or white wine. Other times, I let the bitter bite shine through.
Everything you always wanted to know about rapini *but were afraid to ask: