The sullen gray winter that has afflicted this part of the world this year isn't leaving gracefully ... it's chilly, and spitting snow outside my window as I write this. But in a sign of impending spring even more vivid than a few prematurely sprouting jonquils, the rapini has returned to our grocers' shelves.
Even in an age when such once-seasonal veggies as asparagus and fresh asparagus are now available year-round, it's still fun to see the turn of the seasons reflected at the produce market, particularly in the more offbeat fruits and vegetables that offer tasty variations on the tried and true.
Rapini ("Rah-pee-nee"), also known as broccoli rabe ("Robb"), is a member of the broccoli family, brassica, and purportedly confers some of the same healthy and cancer-fighting benefits. You would never mistake it for a broccoli "tree," though, although on close examination you'll find a few loose florets that closely resemble the more familiar veggie, stuck down inside the green leafy head that tops each bunch of thin, edible green stalks. (Rapini also somewhat resembles broccolini, a recent invention that resembles a bunch of slender broccoli stems, each topped by a single floret; or the similar Chinese broccoli, with its thick stems and small florets, that's one of our favorites on the dim sum cart.)
But rapini stands on its own in the flavor department, packing an intense and very bitter taste that's not to everyone's liking. If you enjoy "adult" flavors, particularly those in the bitter quadrant of the flavor wheel like black coffee, hoppy beer and Chinese winter melon, than the chances are that you'll enjoy rapini too. But if you prefer to walk on the mild side, you may prefer to steer clear.
Rapini can be prepared as a simple green vegetable by simmering, steaming or sauteeing, and many references suggest a two-step process (which is also said to diminish the bitterness a bit) of blanching the vegetable first by simmering it in salted water just until it wilts, then draining and following up with a quick saute in olive oil with lots of minced garlic and dried red-pepper flakes until it's just crisp-tender.
In Southern Italy, rapini is often served over short pasta with black olives. In the North, a favored combination is rapini with polenta and pork. I love polenta - it's an ultimate comfort food, and doubly so when I kick it up with cheese - so let's fashion a comforting late-winter Italian dish that bears a surprising, if coincidental, resemblance to an old Southern American favorite, cornbread and greens.
Italian-food traditionalists might be horrified at my simplified polenta method, but what, me worry? This procedure never results in lumps and yields a result in 10 minutes that I find difficult to distinguish from an authentic polenta that requires an hour of constant stirring. The dish is delicious and filling if you start with Italian sausages or pork chops, but you can skip the meat in a full vegetarian version that's just as good and harms no animals in its production. If you're not intrigued by rapini, try the dish with collards, mustard or turnip greens or kale. Or just-plain broccoli.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
IF YOU USE THE MEAT:
FOR THE GREENS:
FOR THE POLENTA:
1. First, get all your ingredients measured out and organized (the practical kitchen procedure that the French call mise en place or "put in place"), so you don't have to fool around with chopping or searching for items at the last minute. So, peel the onion (if you're using the pork chops) and slice it into thick rings. Rinse the rapini and chop it coarsely - I generally just cut across the bunch, whacking leaves, florets and stems into 1-inch sections. Peel the garlic and mince it fine, and measure out and assemble the other ingredients.
2. If you're choosing the meat option, you'll want to cook the pork chops or sausages first, then hold them in a warm (200F/95C) oven while you finish up the rapini and polenta. If you're making pork chops, sautee the sliced onions in a large, heavy skillet in a little oil until they start to brown, then put in the chops, sear on both sides, and cook covered over low heat until they're done, about 10 to 30 minute depending on thickness. (See last week's recipe for some thoughts on cooking pork chops.) For the sausages, simply put them over medium heat in a heavy skillet until they're browned and cooked through. Either way, put the finished meat on an ovenproof plate and keep it in the warm oven while you do the rest.
3. Take the skillet you used for the meat and pour off excess fat (or, for the vegetarian version, start with a clean skillet and put in the olive oil). Put it over medium heat and sautee the minced garlic and red-pepper flakes until the garlic becomes aromatic and starts to turn golden. Put in all the washed, chopped rapini, add salt to taste, and stir it over high heat until it starts to wilt. Cover and cook over very low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the rapini is tender but the stems are still a little al dente. (OPTION: Simmer the rapini for a few minutes in salted water, then drain before sauteeing, if you want to reduce the bitterness. But then ... why are you cooking rapini anyway?)
4. While the greens are simmering, make this quick, non-traditional (and easy) polenta. Put the cold water in a saucepan and stir in the cornmeal and salt, using a whisk or wooden spoon. (The traditional process calls for ever-so-carefully pouring a thin stream of corn meal into boiling water while you stir like a maniac to prevent lumps. Seems like an awful lot of trouble, since the cold-water method guarantees no lumps.) Once you've mixed the cornmeal and water into a smooth slurry, turn heat to high and cook, stirring often, until the water comes to a boil, whereupon the polenta will almost immediately thicken. Turn the heat down to very low before you have a Mount St. Helens-style eruption, and continue cooking for a few minutes, stirring now and then. It will thicken and become more smooth with cooking time, but standard commercial cornmeal (Quaker brand or equivalent) really doesn't need more than 5 to 10 minutes to become polenta. When the greens are ready, turn off heat under the cornmeal and stir in the butter and cheese until they're melted and well distributed.
Serve the rapini over the polenta with the pork chops or sausages (if used) on the side.
Finally, the excellent Cooks Thesaurus pages (from whom the photo of rapini in today's HTML/Graphics edition is borrowed) have an intriguing page with articles about an amazing varity of cooking greens including rabe/rapini:
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Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Simplicity, Italian style (Feb. 17)
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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005
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