No, I am not two-timing my husband with an Italian… Rapini is one of the true vegetable loves of my life, and might become yours too!My most recent excursion to the local India market was to pick up some coriander seeds and turmeric. Walking in the door, where did my eyes first go? To the boxes of produce stacked near the entry, looking for my love… and what a fortuitous day!They had a crate full of fresh rapini (also known as broccoli rabe or broccoli raab) right next to the bitter melon and lucky me picked up two bunches, along with a packet of fresh curry leaves. When the market gets its fresh produce rapini is almost always sold out within a couple days. Score! I know I can buy it elsewhere, but it’s usually a little cheaper at the India market and I always love a bargain.What? An Italian vegetable selling out at the India market? Every week. And that’s because rapini cooks up to some of the best saag you can imagine. This isn’t the creamy spinach dish you find on the typical menu at Indian restaurants. Saag made with mustard greens (called sarson ka saag) has a flavor more bitter and earthy than spinach, and doesn’t need paneer or cream added to it to make it taste amazing. A couple of corn chapattis (makai ki roti) or a chunk of cornbread and you are in saag nirvana. The flavor of mustard greens or rapini may be an acquired taste for some, but once attained it’s a lifelong love affair.
Rapini sort of looks like a cross between mustard greens and broccoli. You may notice the greens look a little like mustard, but also you will find buds of florets – like little broccoli babies – tucked in amongst the leaves. These buds never form big heads like broccoli does. Rapini is actually broccoli’s distant cousin (they are both in the large family of cruciferous/brassica vegetables). Rapini is more closely related to mustard greens and turnips (these three are all classified under brassica rapa) and is sometimes called Italian turnip. As you might expect rapini’s flavor is akin to both mustard and turnip greens.
Because of its broccoli-ish buds, some equate rapini to kai-lan (Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale) which has similar buds. Kai-lan, however, is more like broccoli in flavor, having broader, smoother leaves and thicker stalks than rapini. Kai-lan is mild in flavor compared to rapini, but with its slightly bitter hint of mustard it could be substituted for rapini in most recipes. I have an Asian market with kai-lan and an Indian market with rapini, each within a few miles of my home. For saag, I go for rapini or mustard greens every time! As for kai-lan, I usually make a simple stir fry with ginger, a little garlic, green onions, and perhaps some shitake mushrooms; with or without tofu this is delicious with basmati rice or soba noodles.
Like other cruciferous veggies, rapini is a nutritional powerhouse, high in vitamins A, C and K, iron, and folate. These nutrients are better assimilated if the greens are lightly cooked.
What to do with rapini besides make saag? First, wash it. For any greens the easiest way to do this is to fill your sink with about 6 inches or so of cold water and put your greens in there. Swirl them around a little and then let stand for a few minutes for any debris to sink to the bottom or float to the top. Shake off the greens and then chop as desired or directed for your recipe. For fine chopped, roll a few leaves together up into a tight log, cut in half lengthwise, and then chop crosswise in slices about 1/4-inch apart. Because the leaves are not so broad, I am usually fine just chopping crosswise across the leaves.
To cook, simply sauté chopped rapini in olive oil with a little garlic and a pinch of red chile flakes. Season with salt and with only a few minutes of prep time you have a delicious vegetable side. These same sautéed greens could be tossed with cooked penne pasta and topped with a drizzle of olive oil and shaved Asiago or Parm. It would be just as tasty sautéed the same way and tossed with boiled (still warm) potatoes instead of pasta. Another suggestion is to roast the rapini. I would first blanch it a minute or two in boiling water, then drain and toss with peeled garlic cloves, red chiles, olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Roast at 400 for about 15 minutes. Ouch! So yummy it hurts! If you haven’t noticed, rapini is very happily married to garlic. Whatever you are making with rapini always add garlic, and enjoy the harmony!