Surprisingly, broccoli rabe is not actually broccoli, nor is it related to broccoli. This leafy vegetable, also known as “rapini,” is classified in the same subspecies as the turnip. Rapini stalks have large leaves that surround clusters of green buds that look like small heads of broccoli — hence the name. Prior to this dish, we had never cooked or eaten broccoli rabe and weren’t quite sure we would like it. But we knew rapini is common in Italy (where everything is better) and is packed with vitamins and nutrients. Since we’re always looking for healthy — but still delicious — vegetarian meals, we decided to give this pasta and broccoli rabe dish a try. We were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed the nutty, slightly bitter flavor of the rapini combined with the garlic & olive oil pasta. We also liked how quick and easy this meal is to make, with just a few ingredients: broccoli rabe, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, orecchiette pasta and Parmesan cheese. As we often do with first-time cooking attempts, we consulted the folks at Cook’s Illustrated (specifically, their book Italian Classics) for a no-fail recipe.
Prepare the broccoli rabe by cutting off the thick bottom ends of the stalks (about 2 inches worth) and discard, then cut the remaining portions of stalk, leaves and florets into bite-sized pieces. Rinse the rapini well and run it through a salad spinner.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the broccoli rabe and cook until the rabe is slightly tender — about 2-3 minutes.
Use tongs to remove the rapini from the hot water into a bowl of ice cold water to stop the cooking process. After a minute or so, drain the rabe and set it aside.
Bring the water used to blanch the rapini back to a boil, add the pasta and cook until al dente.
While the pasta cooks, heat about 1/3 of a cup of olive oil, along with 4 cloves of garlic in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook until the garlic becomes golden brown — about 2-3 minutes. Then add about 1/2 a teaspoon of red pepper flakes. The original recipe calls for mincing the garlic, but
we Dan went off-recipe and cooked ours whole but slightly crushed. I didn’t prefer the big pieces of garlic and would have liked it to be a little more evenly distributed in the finished dish. Next time we’ll probably do it my way compromise and slice the garlic into thin pieces.
Add the broccoli rabe to the skillet and cook until it is heated through — about 3-4 minutes.
When the pasta is al dente, drain it and reserve about a cup of the pasta water.
Add the broccoli rabe “sauce” to the drained pasta and stir everything together. Slowly add the reserved pasta water as needed if the pasta seems too dry. Serve in a low bowl garnished with a generous amount of grated Parmesan cheese. Not long after we made this meal, we saw a chef on the Today Show make a similar version, using anchovies instead of garlic in the olive oil and garnishing with bread crumbs, which would also be delicious. If you’ve never tried broccoli rabe, we recommend either of these recipes as a good introduction to this super healthy vegetable.