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.
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 [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.
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.