Rah, Rah, Rah! Rapini!
Who knew that one meal in Italy would prompt a 4-year-long quest to identify a vegetable?
On our vacation in Rome and Florence five years ago, Pa Hubbard and I quickly found out that there is more to Italy than pizza and pasta. We were blown away by Italian chefs and their focus on fresh, local ingredients. Fresh produce was everywhere, from the local sandwich shop below our apartment, to the small markets on most every street. This emphasis extended to meats as well; we were surprised to find butchered poultry sold at market with heads and feet intact (as explained to us, so that customers could better judge the time that had elapsed since slaughter). Italians have known that buying locally is best long before it ever became trendy here in the U.S.
During dinner one night, Pa Hubbard and I fell in love with a mysterious vegetable that was completely new to us. It was a green of some type, lightly sautéed in olive oil and garlic. There were tiny little florets, resembling miniature broccoli heads, mixed throughout the stems and leaves. This was not the broccoli we knew, however. The taste was more mustard-like, with just a tiny hint of bitterness that worked to its advantage. It paired just as well with Pa Hubbard’s rabbit as it did with my lamb chops. I decided then and there to grow it in our garden back home.
But what was it? There was no English translation on the menu. We inquired with the server, who tried to explain despite the language barrier. “Rocket,” was the best that we could make out.
Once home, I found out that arugula is sometimes known as rocket. The following spring, I allowed some arugula to bolt; though tasty when sautéed, it wasn’t the same. Two years later, I discovered and planted another cultivar of arugula, “wild rocket,” but still no luck.
Then I began exploring Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds online store, which has illustrations of vegetables otherwise not available in their print catalog. An illustration of rapini in the broccoli section caught my eye… could this be it?
I would have to wait an incredibly long winter to find out. I planted the rapini seeds in the fall, allowing them to grow slowly through the winter months. The following April, I was rewarded with my first harvest of rapini shoots. Eureka! This was it!
How to Grow Rapini
I’ve since learned that there are two types of rapini, also known as broccoli raab. A larger, more leafy type is sown in the fall, overwintered, and harvested in the spring. Smaller types with a more spreading habit are sown in the early spring/early fall and mature in about two months. I grow both types in our decimal garden.
Rapini is one of the easiest vegetables you can grow. Unlike other brassicas, which frequently require starting in flats and then transplanting to the garden, I have had tremendous success direct sowing them in the garden. I’ve even carefully pulled thinnings from one garden location and moved them to another spot without casualties – they are very hardy plants.
In my plant hardiness zone (6b), I have successfully overwintered long-season rapini without any additional protection for the plants. The foliage does take a hit with heavy freezes and isn’t pretty, but when spring returns, the plants rebound quickly.
As opposed to broccoli, the flavor of rapini is not negatively affected when the plants begin to bolt and produce flowers. The flowers are very edible, having a somewhat nutty flavor. I’m fine with rapini blossoms in the garden, and so are my honeybees. When pollen and nectar sources are few and far between, my honeybees are happy to find the rapini when they come out of the hive on warmer fall days.
How to Cook Rapini
I prefer to braise rapini in my enameled cast iron skillet on medium high heat. I first boil a small amount of water with the greens in the skillet, which blanches the greens and softens the stems. Once the water is boiled off, I quickly add olive oil to the skillet and sauté them a little longer, adding fresh minced garlic and occasionally, red pepper flakes. This is a simple side dish that is especially good with lamb, grilled steaks, or venison.