Sure, it was a very mild winter. That does not mean you are still not eager to check out the first greens of spring.
A visit to the greenmarket at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza or the bigger one at Union Square provides clear evidence that nature is moving along nicely. Along with spring onions, early lettuce and kale, you’ll find a higher-profile side dish. While its common moniker is broccoli rabe, it also answers to broccoli raab, broccoli rape, Italian or Chinese broccoli, turnip broccoli or rapini.
A couple of greenmarket growers told me that technically the broccoli rabe I was looking at was not actually a spring vegetable but one that wintered over, meaning it grew out of what was left in the ground at the time of last fall’s final harvest. The field is covered with a tarp until early spring, when the cover is removed and the tops harvested anew.
Wintered-over broccoli rabe, I was told, is sweeter than the type harvested at other times of the year, which is generally a good thing as broccoli rabe can get bitter.
Broccoli rabe, while not the same plant as broccoli, is a cousin. Both are cruciferous vegetables, with a reputation as cancer-fighters; others include cauliflower, cabbage, cress, bok choy, mustard greens and Brussels sprouts.
Broccoli rabe is fat-free—at least until you add the olive oil—light in calories and rich in vitamins A, C and K. Preparing it with a little garlic, finely minced anchovies and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice never hurts. It’s also quite good at elevating pasta, Italian sausage and boiled potatoes.
A typical price at the greenmarkets is $3 or $3.50 for a pound and a half bunch. The simplest way to prepare it is to sauté it in olive oil at moderate heat for 6 to 10 minutes and sprinkle it with a little more olive oil and sea salt. If you want it tenderer and aren’t worried about losing that bright green color, you can simmer it longer.
And if you happen to be reading this later in the season, when broccoli rabe tends to pick up a bit more bitterness, consider parboiling it before throwing it in the frying pan.
Irwin’s Broccoli Rabe
1½ lbs broccoli rabe
3 T fragrant olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ lemon, cut lengthwise into wedges
Sea salt and black pepper in a grinder
Two minced anchovies (optional)
1. Wash the broccoli rabe well and trim the stalks, discarding the bottom inch. Cut the stalks roughly into thirds and drop the pieces into lightly salted boiling water; cook, stirring occasionally, for three minutes.
2. Drain the broccoli rabe and stop the cooking process by flooding it with cold water.
3. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil over moderate heat in a nonstick or cast-iron frying pan large enough to hold all the vegetable. Or finish it in batches if your pan is too small.
4. Add the garlic and the anchovies, if using, and stir until they soften, 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Add the broccoli rabe and cook another five minutes, stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through and coated with oil but still bright green.
6. Transfer the broccoli rabe to a serving platter and spoon the two remaining tablespoons of olive oil over it, sprinkle generously with salt and black pepper. Serve immediately with the lemon wedges.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.