Know Your Ingredients
The Rape of Broccoli
and the birth of canola oil
Pretty much every morning, our editor pops into my office, lifts a cheek to fart, asks me why I haven't yet cleared out my desk, then crawls around on all fours with a stuffed bunny in his mouth, trying to engage my terrier in a tug of war. But one morning this week, Dear Leader also presented me with a test of my professional qualifications.
"What's a canola?" he asked, his teeth clenching the bunny's dirty ear. I immediately thought he meant cannula (a tube for insertion into body cavities or ducts, primarily for draining fluids etc.) and replied that I thought it would make a fine name for his death metal band. But no, he was asking about canola, as in canola oil, and I had to admit I didn't know.
(OK, I probably wrote a big story about this four years ago, but I smoked hella weed in college, and I can't remember the name of my most recent ex-boyfriend, much less if I've ever written about rapeseed oil. So humor me if this is a refresher for you loyal readers.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, that's what canola oil is made from, rape seeds. Who can guess why the Canadian seed-oil industry decided to make up a new name for rapeseed oil? Before our northern neighbors came up with the name canola, the stuff was known as low erucic acid rapeseed or LEAR oil. Apparently, they had to breed a kind of ... uh ... rape plant which produced oil with lower levels of the carcinogenic erucic acid and blah blah blah science stuff blah blah blah blah. The point is, in the '80s, the FDA decided to allow the name change and it's been canola ever since.
But on to what you really want to know: Rape is a vegetable and you've probably never eaten it. I've seen it a few times at natural foods stores, where I think it was labeled rapini. (Ah, that's better, isn't it? Doesn't sound so violent when you give it a little Italian twist.) Like a member of a notorious mob family, rapini has several other aliases, including brocoletti di rape, and the more common broccoli rabe.
A long, leafy stalk studded with small, broccoli-like clusters, broccoli rabe has close ties to the the cabbage and turnip families. You know how if you look close enough at broccoli, each of those tiny florets starts to look like a little Brussels sprout. And when you look at Brussels sprouts, they totally look like heads of regular old cabbage? They all look like little flowers, and indeed broccoli rabe will bloom with little yellow flowers if you let it. I don't see how the turnip connection makes any sense at all.
The flavor of broccoli rabe is something of an acquired taste. The thing is, it's bitter. You know how the Italians love weird, bitter things like Campari? Well they love rapini. Many greens are slightly bitter, though, so if you love mustard greens, collards, kale and chard, then you're a good candidate for brocoletti di rape.
Still, this leafy green is barely edible when raw and has to be cooked just right in order to not taste terrible. To make the most of your rape, you'll need to master the techniques of blanching, shocking and jumping. In other words, you'll want to briefly boil the greens to cook them most of the way and remove bitterness, quickly stop that cooking process, then sauté them to add flavor.
Blanching is a handy way of half-cooking vegetables that you plan to cook again later. The technique is useful when you want to sauté a bunch of vegetables together, but one of them takes way longer to cook. (You know, like when you're stirfrying carrots and onions, but the onions burn before the carrots even start to brown.) Blanching is also a great way to lightly cook vegetables you want to serve not-quite-raw for a salad or vegetable platter.
To blanch, take your rapini (or green beans, broccoli, asparagus, you name it) and drop it into a big pot of boiling water. (Doing a whole head of broccoli? Save yourself the hassle and don't cut it up first. Blanching a bunch of asparagus? Leave the rubber band on, trim the ends and plunge the bundle in whole.) Watch as the the color intensifies to a deep, bright green. Depending on their thickness, it should only take a minute or two for the stalks to cook most of the way through. Pull one out with your tongs to check; you're looking for the vegetable to be softened slightly. When it's ready, gather the raab with tongs and pull the stalks out, or pour them into a colander.
(Incidentally, here's another technique you can use if you want to cook something ever so slightly, or if you're dealing with something very delicate like spinach. Put the veggies in a colander and simply pour boiling water over them. Ta da! Partly partly-cooked.)
Then, immediately plunge the hot veggies into a big bowl of ice water. This is "shocking." Ice water stops the cooking process quickly so that your lovely rapini doesn't dissolve into a pile of slimy green poop. Let blanched veggies sit in ice water until they're completely cool. Pat them dry with paper towels. They can now be wrapped in the paper towels, zippered into a storage bag and refrigerated for a few days. Or you can get it over with and jump them right away.
Sauté is a French word that means "to jump." If you get a frying pan (also known as a sauté pan) fairly hot, pour in a little bit of fat (say, bacon grease?), and then toss in chopped vegetables, the heat and grease will cause them to jump around in the pan. Sort of. (Oh well, you know the French. Always so dramatic.) The simplest thing to do here would be to heat up a little butter or olive oil, add a couple of crushed garlic cloves and a few dashes of red chile flakes. Wait until the garlic is softened but don't burn it! Then add your blanched (but patted dry) broccoli rabe and toss it around. Sprinkle kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper over the pan and serve alongside your pork chop and sweet potato.
Otherwise, you can try this dish recommended by Andy Boy, the best known American grower of rapini.