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SOCAL STYLE / Entertaining

An Acquired Taste

Her First Bite of Broccoli Raab Left Her Wondering Why the Italians Loved It So Much.

March 12, 2000|JESSICA STRAND | Jessica Strand last wrote about pork loin for the magazine

Like so many obsessive relationships, my affair with broccoli raab got off to a rocky start. I was enjoying the pleasures of Italy when I first encountered the bitter green--known to the Italians as brocoletti di rape or rapini. My husband and I were joining his family for dinner at La Roseta, an elegant restaurant in the middle of Perugia, a town known best for its chocolates. When I asked the waiter to explain a first course of pasta featuring brocoletti di rape, he said that it was impossible to describe the flavor of the vegetable; it was something I'd either love or hate. Intrigued, I ordered the dish, a plate of steaming fusilli covered with dark greens that looked like a cross between broccoli and escarole. I took a bite. My mouth puckered at the taste. Like a bad first date, I gave it the brushoff, pushing the dish aside.

Not believing there was a vegetable I wouldn't like, I soon gave brocoletti di rape a second chance, ordering it at another restaurant in a pasta dish with sweet sausage. I approached it with caution only to discover that the rapini, fragrant with olive oil and garlic, had a satisfying, complex flavor I hadn't noticed before. I was beginning to fall in love.

Along with broccoli, cauliflower, turnip and cabbage, broccoli raab--as it's more commonly known here--is a member of the brassica or wild mustard family, which dates back to early Mediterranean civilizations, the name deriving from the Latin bracchium, meaning arm or branch. Ancient Romans in particular favored the vegetable in both their cuisine and as a medicinal ingredient. With its delicate stalks, flat, dark leaves and small flower heads, broccoli raab resembles a more feminine version of broccoli, though it has a much spicier, nuttier taste. You know it's fresh when the stalks are slender and the buds are not yet open or are just beginning to show a hint of yellow. Maureen Vincenti, owner of Brentwood's Vincenti, says she grew it in her own garden until suppliers began to offer it--a result, she thinks of its popularity on menus at restaurants in town. She cites it as an ingredient for two of the restaurant's classic southern Italian dishes: a spicy lamb stew with anchovies, shallots and tomatoes that's served over stewed rapini, and spaghetti with garlic, chiles, anchovies, cherry tomatoes and rapini that's topped with ricotta salada.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I lusted after the dark green vegetable, hoping to find it by digging through heads of broccoli at the grocery store--but with no success. Although I found it on menus, nobody seemed to stock it. I tried to make do with endive and escarole, even watercress, but nothing took its place. When it finally did become readily available, there was no holding back. I stuffed potatoes, made pasta sauce and used it as a bed for meat and fish. I fried it with anchovies, tossed it with walnuts, sprinkled it with red pepper flakes and lemon. I even baked it with bread crumbs, currants and pine nuts. I subjected my husband to a dinner with the bitter green so often that he announced he'd had enough.

For a while, I abstained altogether. But my obsession soon got the best of me, so I came up with a simple recipe that made us both happy. In Marcella Hazan's "Italian Kitchen," I learned that boiling broccoli raab in salty water until tender reduced the bitterness and enhanced its nutty, peppery flavor. Finally, the two of us made a pact that I could have the vegetable on occasion, but it would never come between us again.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Broccoli Raab with Walnuts

Serves 4

*

4 bunches broccoli raab

2 tablespoons salt

4-5 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

juice of 1/2 lemon

salt and pepper to taste

*

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash broccoli raab and cut off wood stalks.

Bring large pot of water to boil. Add salt and drop in the broccoli raab. Cook until tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Shock broccoli raab in ice-water bath to stop cooking and to set color. Transfer broccoli raab to colander and drain well.

Place walnuts in oven until golden brown.

In large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and saute until soft, but not brown. Add broccoli raab and saute for about 3 to 5 minutes. Add walnuts, salt and pepper to taste.

Place on platter and squeeze lemon juice over the top. Serve immediately.

*

Food stylist: Christine Anthony-Masterson

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