Broccoli rabe, known in Italian as rapini, is a green vegetable that looks like leafy broccoli but is more closely related to the turnip. Grown throughout the world, including California, and often featured in Italian food, the entire vegetable is edible and used as a cooking green. It's best in autumn and has a sharp, bitter flavor that adds to its charm, though that can be tamed by blanching. Roasting or sautéing broccoli rabe is most common, though it can be cooked in a variety of ways.
What Is Broccoli Rabe?
Broccoli rabe (Brassica ruvo) is also called rapini, raab, or rabe (both pronounced "rahb"), bitter broccoli, and turnip broccoli. The Italian name cime di rape means "turnip tops" and in Italy it's also known as rapini or broccoleti di rapa, while friarelli is common in Naples. It is a cruciferous vegetable, alongside broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. The long, slender stalk is light green and topped with large darker green leaves intermixed with small buds that look like broccoli florets. While it's more similar in appearance to broccoli or broccolini, it's botanically closer to turnips and the taste is more like mustard or turnip greens.
The plant is native to Asia where it's known as choi sum and pak-choi as well as the Mediterranean and Italy, where it was harvested from the wild before being cultivated. Today it is cultivated worldwide, with the majority that's sold in the U.S. grown in California, descended from the wild Italian plant. Its preference for cool climates makes it a favorite cold-weather green. If allowed to overwinter, the plant becomes less bitter and almost sweet.
The entire plant is edible, which is good because it can be on the more expensive side of vegetables. Other than washing it, there's very little prep work. It's often blanched then grilled, roasted, or sautéed, though it can also be incorporated into dishes.
Cooking With Broccoli Rabe
Broccoli rabe needs to be treated like a cooking green. Some bunches have more or larger florets that look like broccoli and these can be cooked along with the greens, adding great texture to the final dish. You will want to rinse it well with water and trim the very end of the stem, which can be a bit woody. For thick stems, peeling it like asparagus can improve it as well.
Blanching sets broccoli rabe's green color and leaches out much of the bitterness. For this (or any other cooking green, for that matter), blanch it in salted boiling water for a minute or two. Drain it, squeeze out any excess water, then cook it. It's most often roasted or sautéed, though it can be boiled, grilled, steamed, or stir-fried.
Customarily combined with other cooking greens, mushrooms, or garlic, it can also be added to soups, stews, and pasta dishes. It can be pureed into a pesto-like sauce and adds punch of flavor to egg dishes like frittatas. You can even find it as a topping on some Italian-American sandwiches along with roast beef and provolone (popular in Philadelphia restaurants). When raw or blanched, it's often best to use just a small amount of broccoli rabe, and mix it with sweeter greens.
What Does It Taste Like?
Broccoli rabe is known for its bitter taste, but you'll also find a nutty earthiness from the leaves. While the stems hold a flavor similar to mustard greens, the buds are more like broccoli florets.
Broccoli Rabe Recipes
You will find broccoli rabe among the ingredients in Italian dishes, from pasta to soup, and it's often paired with Italian sausage. It can also be cooked and served as a side dish (commonly alongside pork). Balancing the bitterness against hearty or sweet flavors creates a satisfying and substantial meal.
Where to Buy Broccoli Rabe
Broccoli rabe is a cool weather vegetable that's at its best in fall, early winter, and early spring. Warm weather encourages the plant to bolt (or flower), which makes it even more bitter in flavor than usual. It's available in more and more stores but in some areas, you'll need to go to farmers markets, co-ops, or specialty stores to find it. Sold by the bunch, the labor involved with harvesting it does make it more expensive than other vegetables. If you're inclined, it can be planted in the garden and is easy to grow as a cool-season cooking green.
Look for bunches with large, dark green leaves that show no signs of yellowing or wilting. Any stalks with small buds that look like loose broccoli heads should be equally green and fresh looking.
Store broccoli rabe in a loosely closed plastic bag in the crisper of the fridge. Fresh-from-the-market broccoli rabe should last up to a week when properly stored.
Broccoli Rabe vs. Chinese Broccoli
Broccoli rabe and Chinese broccoli are very similar vegetables. Both are from the Brassica genus, have edible stalks, leaves, and small florets, and are bitter in flavor. The two are often recommended as substitutes for one another. The biggest difference is that Chinese broccoli has a much thicker stem. Depending on how you're using it, that may make not work out as well as broccoli rabe.