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You Don't Have To Be Italian To Eat Broccoli Rabe

Recently during a phone call with my mom, I mentioned that I was going to make broccoli rabe for an upcoming dinner party.

"Oh, no, honey, you can't serve broccoli rabe," she said.

Broccoli rabe was a staple at every Sunday dinner and appeared at least one other time midweek, topping pizza, smothering a veal cutlet. ... My mom made it all the time for our family but not for company. It was too risky.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because, you know, broccoli rabe has a distinctive flavor," and she whispered "distinctive" like someone would whisper "cancer" at the dinner table.

It's difficult for me to imagine anyone not liking broccoli rabe, a green vegetable known for its distinctive bitter flavor. Growing up in Italian-centric Rhode Island, broccoli rabe was everywhere -- at markets large and small, on restaurant menus and in most people's refrigerators.

Broccoli rabe was a staple at every Sunday dinner and appeared at least one other time midweek, topping pizza, smothering a veal cutlet or nestled inside a crusty Italian roll with grilled Italian sausage. My mom made it all the time for our family but not for company. It was too risky.

Broccoli rabe originated in the Mediterranean and China and today is grown throughout the world. It features prominently in both Italian and Asian cuisines, particularly in Southern Italy and Hong Kong.

It has taken a while for Americans to embrace this full-flavored vegetable, but thanks to popular chefs such as Lidia Bastianich, a grande dame of Italian-American cooking, broccoli rabe has become more mainstream in the past couple of decades.

Once people start cooking with broccoli rabe, they realize it's remarkably versatile. As well as making a delicious side dish, it's a robust addition to sandwiches, pizzas, calzones, crostini, pastas, frittatas and soups.

Although broccoli rabe is in the same genus as broccoli (Brassica), it's more closely related to the turnip, so its flavor is akin to turnips, mustard greens and kale. It does resemble broccoli, though -- or, rather, its more attractive cousin: Svelte, dark green stalks are topped with small, tight clusters of green broccoli flowers and dramatic, spiky leaves.

Perhaps more than any other vegetable, broccoli rabe is known by various names, including rapini, broccoli raab (pronounced rob), raab, rape, rapa, broccoli di rape and rappi. In the U.S., it is most commonly called broccoli rabe or rapini. It is not, however, the same thing as broccolini or baby broccoli, which are much sweeter.

Broccoli rabe's peak season runs from late fall through late spring, though it's available at most major supermarkets year-round. When selecting broccoli rabe, look for richly colored dark green leaves and firm, green flower clusters. Avoid bunches with yellow- or brown-tinged leaves, yellow flower clusters or woody stems, all signs that the vegetable is old.

All parts of broccoli rabe are edible, but stalks should be trimmed. Broccoli rabe can be steamed, boiled, sauteed and roasted. I generally prefer to parboil and "shock" broccoli rabe before sauteing it. Simply boil the broccoli rabe for two minutes. Drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water for three to five minutes. Drain and squeeze to release excess water. This helps maintain its vivid color, reduce bitterness and make it more tender.

To balance broccoli rabe's bitterness, do not add sugar, which creates an unpleasant flavor. Instead, pair it with salty, sweet or acidic foods that naturally reduce bitterness and enhance flavor.

Salty foods such as sausage, pancetta, anchovies and olives have an affinity for broccoli rabe. Sweet currants, raisins and cherry tomatoes are natural pairings, as are tangy vinegars and lemon juice. Broccoli rabe is also wonderful with various meats and seafood, such as chicken, veal, sausage, sardines and halibut.

Perhaps the simplest way to serve broccoli rabe and appreciate its assertiveness is to saute it with olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. My family's favorite recipe for sauteed broccoli rabe includes kalamata olives and toasted pine nuts. Sun-dried tomatoes, raisins and fennel seeds are also flavor boosters.

The next time you're planning a dinner party, be bold and serve broccoli rabe for even your best company. Just don't tell my mom.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Russo