Broccoli raab (also called rapini) is a member of the brassica family. The brassica family includes some of the more common vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts. Through our gardening adventures we have found that even the brassicas grown for their leaves, such as kale and mustard greens, will eventually form small heads that look like miniature broccoli before they go to flower. Usually once they are at this stage the greens and heads have become quite bitter and are past their prime. However in the case of broccoli raab, although in this picture it looks like a miniature head of broccoli, both the tender leaves and the small flower buds can be eaten.
Broccoli raab has a touch of bitterness, but there is also a unique nutty component to the flavor. When it is sauteed, the robust flavor makes it a great accompaniment to grilled meats. Once we tried it, everyone in our family was hooked, so we decided to grow it in the garden this year. In our part of California, broccoli raab and other brassicas are primarily winter vegetables, so we planted it in early fall. It is easy to grow, the seed came up in a very short time, and once it was large enough to eat (but before it developed the yellow flowers) we harvested the tops and small leaves by cutting them with scissors and got another crop within a week or so. We cut these, and got a third crop and by then the plants were about spent. So the fall planting is reaching the end of the harvest stage, and has now become entertainment for the wild bee population. However, we planted another batch and hope to get a harvest before the summer heat sets in.
As a simple side dish, I like to boil the broccoli raab and then saute it, in the same manner that I make my sauteed chard. However, it can also be used to make a delicious pasta main dish. One thing I love about this recipe is that it is a one dish meal. It is also a versatile recipe as it can be made with broccoli raab or chard or other hearty greens.
For a batch to serve 4 use about 4 cups of chopped broccoli raab (This may be 2-3 bunches if the bunches in the stores are small). Other ingredients include 2 cloves garlic, ½ of a large onion, 1-2 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, about 16-20 ounces of organic chicken broth and 4 chicken or turkey spicy Italian sausage (I like Trader Joe’s brand). Alternatively you can use 12-16 ounces of bulk Italian Sausage. I often use diestel brand which is a lower fat, locally produced product.
If you are a vegetarian you can skip the sausage (or use one of the excellent vegetarian sausages on the market) and use vegetable broth.
Finally, you need enough pasta for 4 people (about 8 ounces dry, you can read the label for serving size information). I usually use whole grain pasta, and for this recipe I used a whole grain rigatoni from Trader Joe’s.
I also used 4 large pieces of slightly stale levain bread from Acme Bread and another Tablespoon of olive oil to make the toasted bread crumb garnish. Any firm artisan style sourdough bread can be used to make the toasted bread crumb garnish, but you can also skip the bread crumb garnish and use grated dry cheese such as parmigiano, pecorino romano or a local dry jack cheese instead.
If the broccoli raab is a bit mature, break off the flower buds and leaves.
Discard the largest, toughest stems.
Chop the buds, leaves and smaller stems coarsely.
Crush the cloves of garlic with the back of a cleaver to loosen the skins, then remove the skins and slice them thinly.
Remove the skin from the onion and slice it thinly.
I find the casing of sausages to be a bit tough. If the sausage has a casing that is thick and therefore easily removed, you can remove it before cooking the sausage. However, this is optional. To do this slice through the sausage casing lengthwise.
Then remove the casing from the sausage.
Slice the sausage in half, then cut the halves into slices about ½ inch thick.
If you use bulk sausage, it can just be crumbled into the pan.
Bring a large pot of water to boil and add 1 Tablespoon of salt to the pot.
If you want to make the optional bread crumb garnish take the levain bread (or other dry hearty artisan bread) and tear it into pieces and then grind it into coarse crumbs using a food processor. Add a drizzle of oil and mix to coat the crumbs evenly. Bake them on a baking pan in a 325 degree oven for about 8-10 minutes (stirring once after 5 minutes) until lightly toasted. Be careful, they can burn very fast! Set aside.
Now, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil on medium high heat. Add the sausage and onion.
Cook the sausage and onion, stirring occasionally, until well browned.
Turn down the heat to low, add the sliced garlic and stir it around for a couple of minutes more. Do not let the garlic brown! Turn off the heat.
Now plunge the broccoli raab into the boiling water and let it cook for 5-10 minutes until one of the largest stems, when pulled from the water and tested, is no longer tough.
Scoop the broccoli raab out of the pot and into the pan with the sausage. Do not pour out the hot water, leave it boiling as you will be adding the pasta to it in a minute.
Now turn the heat on the frying pan back up to medium high. Add 16 ounces of chicken broth and stir it all up. Bring it to a boil, turn the heat down to a moderate simmer, and continue to cook while you are cooking the pasta. You want the mixture to be somewhat saucy, so if it gets too dry, add some more chicken broth. You can also add some water if necessary, but only add about ¼ cup liquid at a time.
Add the pasta to the water you boiled the broccoli raab in and cook it until it is done but not mushy (read the label for approximate times). Scoop it out, add it to the pasta mixture, and stir it all up.
Add more chicken broth or water if necessary, and cook the mixture until the pasta is all evenly coated and it is well blended and hot. You can keep it warm on a low heat for up to 15 minutes before serving at this point as long as there is plenty of liquid in the mixture.
Put the pasta onto warm bowls or plates, and sprinkle with breadcrumb mixture (or grated cheese) and serve immediately.