This is the time of the year when the brassica family of vegetables — the cabbage family — asserts itself on the supermarket shelves. Because brassicas love cool growing conditions, they are right at home in our mild Mediterranean climate. And it’s at this time of year that a fresh, new, winter crop of broccoli raab shows up.
What is broccoli raab? It looks sort of primitive with its six- to seven-inch stalks and loose scattering of tight flower buds among the leaves at the shoot tips, as though it might be a progenitor of the familiar tight flower heads of ordinary broccoli. But no — it’s not a broccoli at all, but rather more closely related to the turnip.
So how come it’s called broccoli raab? The answer is that the Italians just love broccoli raab, where it’s served sautéed or braised, given a shot of olive oil (natch) and salt, and served much like asparagus. And the Italian word for turnip is rapa. In Italy, the vegetable is called cime di rapa, which means the top of the turnip.
Somehow, rapa became raab when it crossed the pond. The word broccoli probably got attached here in America to distinguish it from broccoletti, those interesting, mathematical, lime green flower heads also now in stores, that are also known as romanesco.
In early spring, you may find broccolini in stores — it’s a cross between Chinese kale and broccoli, looks a lot like broccoli raab, and makes a fine foodstuff.
Broccoli raab is the least sweet of the winter brassicas. The stems are chewy, the leaves have a distinctly bitter bite to them, and you need a good set of choppers to enjoy them. If you find the bitter flavor off-putting, or lack the proper dentition, you can soften the vegetable up by blanching it in boiling water for a couple of minutes before using it.
It’s commonly used here in America on pizzas, or chopped and added to pasta dishes along with fresh tomatoes, oregano, and lightly sautéed onion.
When approaching a plate adorned with broccoli raab, think of any bitterness as the taste of good health. Like most plants in the brassica genus, it’s loaded with anti-cancer and health-building goodies — up to 30 compounds in all. There’s as much vitamin C as a comparable weight of orange juice, plenty of B vitamins plus antioxidants like quercetin and glutathione precursors.
I once asked Joan Gussow, the famous nutritionist who was working at Columbia University at the time, what the most nutritious vegetables are. She said kale and parsley, but — at least then — people didn’t eat much kale and very little parsley, but they did eat larger amounts of cabbage family members like broccoli, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, turnips, rutabagas. Then she mentioned broccoli raab, which I’d never heard of at the time. “Try a good Italian grocer in the wintertime,” she said. “You’ll find it there.”
Sure enough, I ran across it at Petrini’s, an excellent store, long gone, once located where the Safeway in the shopping center at Fourth Street and Farmer’s Lane in Santa Rosa is now.
I bought some and braised it and found it to be strongly flavored and a delicious foil for the bland, mashed potatoes and poached chicken breast on my plate. It’s not a dinner I would have remembered had it not been for my first taste of broccoli raab.