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Rapini: A case of mistaken identity

July 15, 2012

Well, the experiments continued, but my written record of them did not. A lot happened between February and today. This included feverishly planting and then maintaining our gardens in Homewood and Logan Square in the face of an early heat wave and, subsequently, temperatures that have soared past 100. As yet another side effect of the havoc climate change is beginning to wreak on our system, gardening (especially container gardening) requires a lot more attention when record temperatures coincide with a drought year. It’s been all we can do to keep the potted plants on our deck alive from day to day. I can only imagine how an Illinois corn farmer feels.

In other news, any blog on local eating must give a nod (and a deep bow) to a wildly popular movie that came out this spring and made foraging cool. The teenage protagonist of The Hunger Games is not only the best young female role model to step from the page to the big screen since Hermione Granger; the knowledge Katniss brought to the “game” about edible wild fruits, greens, and tubers is part of what gave her the edge over the other contestants to survive.

Her namesake plant that helps keep her alive, found growing in wet marshy areas, is also commonly known as arrowhead for its pointed leaves–making it doubly appropriate given Katniss’ unmatched skill with a bow. (A wetland ecology in-joke?! I love this author. Apparently I am not alone in my geeking out, as I came across this roasted katniss recipe online described as a “tribute” (no pun intended?) to Katniss Everdeen.)

Katniss collects arrowhead tubers for roasting.

But let’s get back on track here. As I said: The experiments continued! With a certain mysterious green called rapini.

Because the cookbook gave an alternate name of “broccoli rabe,” I assumed that this plant was a variant or wilder version of broccoli. Its appearance when I found it at the store reinforced this perception. In reality, it’s more closely related to the turnip. It also has more aliases than Frank Abagnale, Jr.: Some of the many other names (and spellings!) include raab, rapa, rapine, rappi, rappone, fall and spring raab, taitcat, Italian or Chinese broccoli, broccoli rape, broccoli de rabe, Italian turnip, and turnip broccoli. It originated in the Mediterranean and China so, not surprisingly, is commonly used in Italian and Chinese cooking. The peak season for rapini is fall through spring. The stems, leaves, and flowers are all edible.

The recipe I found for it also features orzo (a tiny rice-shaped pasta) and sun-dried tomatoes–two other ingredients that I had never cooked with before, making for an even more exciting culinary adventure!

Fresh rapini, masquerading as baby broccoli.

What it looks like: Yellow-and-green young broccoli buds just starting to form, nestled among medium-sized, dandelion-like toothed leaves arrayed on round, bright green stems.

What it smells like: The fresh earthy scent of broccoli, with a peppery hint that suggests a more complex flavor.

The recipe: Rapini with Orzo and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, from Quick-Fix Vegetarian by Robin Robertson (my favorite vegetarian cookbook, which features delicious, simple recipes that use vegan whole ingredients and can be made within half an hour).

1 bunch rapini, coarsely chopped (discard bottoms of stems if tough)
1 1/2 cups orzo
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/3 cup chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
Salt and black pepper
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (toast on the stovetop in a dry small skillet over medium heat, shaking occasionally, until lightly browned–about 5 minutes)

The rapini mingling in the skillet with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil.

Cook the rapini (stems, leaves, buds, and all) in a pot of salted boiling water until softened, about 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the rapini from the water, and set aside. Return the same pot of water to a boil; add the orzo, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the red pepper flakes, sun-dried tomatoes, and rapini. Cook until the rapini is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the orzo and season with salt and pepper. Serve sprinkled with the pine nuts.

How it tastes: Unbelievable. For such a simple dish, this recipe has many deliciously rich flavors. I discovered I love sun-dried tomatoes after all, despite my previous suspicion of their appearance. Their chewy, semisweet and semi-savory flavor added heartiness. The crunchy pine nuts complemented the tender orzo very well. Oh, and what about the rapini? It was like a combination of asparagus and broccoli, with a similar texture to cooked spinach. Very tasty and blended well with the other ingredients, without a hint of bitterness. I’d give this dish and these undercover greens each five stars.

The finished recipe. I can taste it again just looking at this picture!

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