Broccoli Rabe with Pasta: An underappreciated winter green becomes a show-stealing side

by Terry B on March 10, 2010

Sautéed with prosciutto, garlic and crushed red pepper, broccoli rabe combines with Cannellini beans and small pasta to become a standout side or a satisfying meal in its own right. Recipe below, with a vegetarian variation.

broccoli-rabe

A recent Sunday found us at Quartino having lunch with Marion’s sister Lena. Just off Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Quartino specializes in “authentic Italian small plates” and pizza. With painstaking attention to architectural detail, the comfortable, rambling space feels as if it’s been around far longer than the less than five years it’s been open. Just as much attention is paid to the food. We ordered a pizza and three small plates to share. All were delicious.

Interestingly, though, the scene stealer was an unassuming little dish of broccoli rabe, made with red chili, garlic, onion, olive oil and pork stock. Before we’d even paid the check, I knew I would be doing something with this multi-named, misnamed winter green.

broccoli-rabe-food-bloggaBroccoli rabe [rob] or rapini [rah-PEE-nee], also called “raab, rapa, rapine, rappi, rappone, fall and spring raab, turnip broccoli, taitcat, Italian or Chinese broccoli, broccoli rape, broccoli de rabe, Italian turnip and turnip broccoli,” according to What’s Cooking America, isn’t related to broccoli at all. It’s actually a relative of turnips and cabbage. Enjoyed throughout the Mediterranean and China, it is used extensively in Chinese and Italian cuisine. And it’s finally gaining popularity here in the United States.

The plant produces broccoli-like buds or florets which are probably responsible for the misnomer, but these don’t blossom into heads. The spiky leaves and stalks are also edible. Broccoli rabe’s flavor is pleasantly bitter and slightly nutty; it plays well with other big flavors, such as garlic, tomatoes and sharp cheeses. And it livens up starches like pasta and beans.

It’s good for you too. Whole Living calls broccoli rabe a power food, saying that it contains compounds “particularly effective against stomach, lung, and colon cancers, and promising research hints at protective effects against breast and prostate cancers as well.” Furthermore, “A 3-1/2-ounce serving of broccoli rabe provides more than half your daily requirement of antioxidant-rich vitamins A and C, both of which fight off dangerous free radicals that can cause damage to your body’s cells.” It’s also a good source of folate, potassium, fiber and calcium.

So with all this going for it, why don’t more of us cook broccoli rabe? The editors at CHOW think it “often gets passed over because people don’t know what to do with it.” And indeed, its somewhat weedlike appearance doesn’t instill much confidence regarding edibleness. Even among those who do cook it, there are wild variations on even the simplest preparations, mainly in terms of cooking times. I wanted to do a sauté. Most [but not all] recipes recommended blanching or boiling it first, to retain its bright green color and cut some of the bitter bite. Times ranged from 20 minutes or more [hope you like green mush!] to merely pouring boiling water over the broccoli rabe in a colander. My approach was closer to the latter—we’re big fans of crisp tender for our vegetables.

Since my inspiration for cooking this winter green came from an Italian restaurant, I stuck with the region for my recipe. I opted for a little bit of thinly sliced prosciutto over the more popular Italian sausage/broccoli rabe combination; I didn’t want meat flavor to dominate, but rather to be just a subtle note. And I used less pasta than generally called for in dishes like this—I wanted the broccoli rabe front and center.

It’s appropriate that a restaurant inspired this dish. Marion deemed it “restaurant good.” That’s praise we reserve for dishes we cook that are so good, we’d be happy if it were served to us in a restaurant. And it was.

Broccoli Rabe with Cannellini and Pasta
Serves four as a side, two as a main course

1 bunch broccoli rabe, about 1 pound
2 to 3 thin slices of prosciutto, sliced into smallish pieces [about 1/2 to 3/4 cup]
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra
3 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste—see Kitchen Notes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 15-ounce can Canellini beans, drained and rinsed
4 ounces small pasta [see Kitchen Notes]

Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile rinse the broccoli rabe thoroughly under cold running water. Trim off the bottom inch or so of the stems, plus lower leaves, which may be tough. Slice the stems and leaves into 1-1/2 to 2-inch sections. When the water comes to a boil, add the chopped broccoli rabe and stir to make sure it all comes in contact with the water. After 1 minute, drain broccoli rabe in a colander and run cold water over it to stop the cooking. Set aside in colander to continue draining.

Meanwhile in a separate pot, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and toss with a drizzle of olive oil to keep it from sticking together.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil. When it begins to shimmer, add prosciutto and sauté until just crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and crushed red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until fragrant—about 45 seconds. Add broccoli rabe and toss to coat with oil. Add Cannellini beans and cooked pasta. Toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper and cook until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to serving bowl and serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

Heat things up a little. The crushed red pepper is a key ingredient in many Italian recipes. Adding 1/2 teaspoon gave the dish a nice, lively touch. Use slightly less if you’re particularly sensitive to spicy foods; on the other hand, feel free to add more if you like serious heat.

Choosing your pasta. If you can find it, I’m a big fan of Ditalini [little thimbles], the small, short tubes you see in the photo. If not, small shells will work, as will orechiette [little ears—pasta has such cute translations, doesn't it?]. But keep the scale—and the amount—in proportion with the dish and its ingredients.

Making it vegetarian. You could just eliminate the prosciutto and be done with it. But I think the savory edge it adds is key. To replace it, grate some good quality parmesan cheese over the finished dish before serving.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

altadenahiker March 10, 2010 at 6:33 pm

I’m a big fan of this vegetable. It’s much older than broccoli, right? I seem to recall broccoli is quite recent hybrid, created by the producer of the James Bond franchise. Hmm, that sounds so unlikely, now I wonder …

In any case, this I will try.

Terry B March 10, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Sorry, Altadenahiker, but the late Albert [Cubby] Broccoli, director of the Bond franchise, was pulling your leg. As one source says, “His oft-repeated claim that his ancestors invented broccoli is considered apocryphal.” In other words, you could use it to fertilize broccoli. And it was around in the time of ancient Rome. Regarding it being a more recent creation, you may be thinking of broccoflower, the pale green broccoli/cauliflower hybrid first grown in Holland and brought to the United States as a crop in the late 1980s.

pretty far west March 10, 2010 at 8:24 pm

This is a nice snazzy site you have here – very professional and appealing. I look forward to assembling my ingredients.

Laura [What I Like] March 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Love this idea of beans in pasta (along with the beautiful vegetables of course). I’ve always had some weird need to have all of my pasta ingredients be different colors and the beans always seemed to be too close to pasta color. I’m going to make a concerted effort to get over it though, this looks far too good. Excited you might make it to NYC, I’m absolutely putting a list together for you!

joan Nova March 10, 2010 at 11:34 pm

One of my favorite pasta dishes — also good with Italian sausage.

Terry B March 11, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Thanks, Pretty Far West!

Laura—I know what you mean about the coloring, but the scale and shape of the pasta makes it work, I think. If this used long pasta—linguine, for instance—I think the color thing would be an issue for me too.

I’ll have to try it with Italian sausage next, Joan Nova. But for this dish, I wanted the broccoli rabe to star.

Saint March 12, 2010 at 4:15 pm

I love the idea of having a vegetable be the star in this dish. The vibrant green really helps in the appeal. Although i would have to say i would use thick sliced uncured bacon vs. prosciutto. But then again i understand the need for prosciutto because you don’t want the broccoli rabe to be over powered. I think some lemon zest as a garnish could really set this dish into motion.

Terry B March 12, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Saint—Some cool suggestions, thanks! Now that I’ve let the broccoli rabe star in this version, I might consider something meatier next time. And welcome to the world of blogging! I just checked out your guidelines for cooking in your very first post—very well written. I’ll be interested to see how you follow them in your cooking.

Joanne March 13, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I grew up on broccoli rabe (one perk of being Italian). My mom always served it with crumbled sausage, garlic, and oil over pasta. It was amazing and still continues to be one of my favorite dishes! However, that’s the only way I really prepare it. I definitely need to branch out more and foresee this dish in my near future!

Melissa March 13, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Love broccoli rabe. I did not know that it was not related to broccoli & did not know that it is one & the same as Chinese broccoli. Thanks for all the info, as usual. I love that you & Marion deem dishes “restaurant good”. My husband & I play a similar game, of citiquing our food & saying “what would you change”, the goal being making it good enough to serve in a restaurant! We also add the dimension of making it feasible to make in a high volume setting like a restaurant,ie: how could you simplify it?

deana@lostpastremembered March 14, 2010 at 11:01 am

I love broccoli rabe… but my guy does not so I make it for myself which isn’t soooo bad?! Sometimes sausage creeps in and I love orecchiette.. but the beans are a great idea, Thanks!

Susan March 16, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I discovered cannellini beans this winter– they make a wonderful vegetarian skillet with pasta, kale, chard and red peppers. I see that’s essentially a dressed-down version of what you’ve done here! I will be trying this– yum!

Terry B March 16, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Joanne—And I’m definitely trying it with sausage next time. Any dish that makes Italian cooks happy is generally fine by me.

Melissa—Apparently broccoli rabe and Chinese broccoli are very similar, but with some subtle differences. According to Wikipedia, “The Chinese cultivar is of a lighter green color, not at all bitter or pungent, and more tender.” Still, I’d say whichever you find in the market, go ahead and use it.

Deana—I’m glad you at least get to enjoy it on your own sometimes. Do try it with the beans—I think you’ll like the change.

Susan—Your dish sounds delicious. And the cannellini beans add protein, always a plus in vegetarian dishes.

kitty March 21, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Oh, we love ditalini, too! I thought we were the only ones. They need to change the name, and I’m sure sales will soar.

This looks awesome, Terry. I’m really trying to get more veggies into our meals. Tonight we had a simple frittata with Swiss chard and salami, the recipe from Bon Appetit. Chard and broccoli rabe are esoteric in my book but I’m venturing forth!

btw have you checked out cookstr.com? It’s pretty nifty.

TheKitchenWitch March 22, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I love broccoli rabe! This dish looks outstanding!

Terry B March 22, 2010 at 4:31 pm

I didn’t know about Cookstr, Kitty. Thanks! I’m always up for new food resources. One of the charms for me of pasta is the whole host of inventive, playful names it has. BTW, farfalle [or farfalla] doesn’t mean bow tie—it actually means butterfly. However, cravatta a farfalla means bow tie [butterfly tie]!

Thanks, TheKitchenWitch!

Julie March 27, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Made it this week…delicious! The ratio of beans, pasta, and broccoli rabe (which I had never cooked with before) were perfect. The only thing I added was a little bit of shaved Parm on the top.

Terry B March 27, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Thanks, Julie! I’m always delighted to get reports from someone who tries one of my recipes. The Parmesan was a good call. I think if I made a version of this without the prosciutto, I would definitely want some Parmesan on it.

Sandy June 24, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Are the roots of broccoli raab edible? Or should I compost them?

Terry B June 25, 2013 at 1:51 am

Sandy, I would compost them.

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