This is a good time of year to eat some broccoli raab from the store, because you may well be convinced to plant your own while there’s still time. You may find the seeds sold as broccoli rabe, broccoli raab, or rapini. This is a vigorous grows-like-a-weed kind of vegetable, but it won’t tolerate hot weather, so get it in the ground now. Direct seeding works well as long as the ground is well prepared and you keep it weeded until it’s big enough to compete. Harvest as soon as it shoots to seed; you’ll notice broccoli-like heads which can vary from the size of a nickel to 3 inches across, depending on variety and weather conditions. Harvest while the buds are still tight, before any blooms appear. Just whack off the top 6-8 inches, leaves and all, compost the rest, and you have time to grow another crop in that space. It’s a close relative of the turnip, but instead of the pronounced (some would say extreme) earthiness of turnip leaves, it has a lovely clean flavor with a slight bitterness that makes it the perfect companion for mellow pasta.
Usually I like greens in mixtures, but I prefer this one by itself. My favorite way to cook it is so simple that it isn’t really a recipe, and it’s on the plate within fifteen minutes of the water coming to a boil. The various steps fit in so well with one another that I prefer to write this as a brief kitchen story rather than a recipe. Read it through before beginning, so that the kitchen logic and logistics will be clear.
You will need: half a pound of good dried pasta, a large bunch of broccoli raab, good olive oil, red pepper flakes, a couple of ounces of good ham, Italian sausage, or pancetta (a small handful when chopped into cubes), an anchovy fillet if you like them, and a few ounces of good cheese, either Parmesan or part Parmesan and part Romano. Toasted pine nuts can be added as a bonus of you have any on hand.
Put on a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Don’t forget to salt it.
While the water is coming to a boil, chop up a small chunk of ham, or some good Italian sausage, or some pancetta, or a little slab bacon if it isn’t too smoky. Chop two large or three small cloves of garlic. Throw them in a small hot skillet with some olive oil, probably 2-3 tablespoons. Stir frequently. As soon as the garlic and meat are cooked, put in half a teaspoon of red pepper flakes and, if you like, a chopped rinsed anchovy fillet or a dash of colatura. Add a tablespoon or two of water, just enough to stop the cooking, and take the skillet off the heat. Wash a bunch of broccoli rabe, using a bunch as big as you can hold in two hands, and set it in a strainer to drain a little.
Meanwhile, the water should have come to a boil. Put in half a pound of good dried pasta. I think penne goes especially well with chunky greens. If you like whole wheat pasta, this is an especially good place to use it. Don’t reduce the heat. Keep it at a hard boil until after you add the greens.
While the pasta is boiling, cut the bunch of rapini in cross section across the bunch, slicing about every half inch. Discard the stem ends if they are more than half an inch in diameter. Five minutes after the pasta went in the water, put the chopped rapini in the water to boil with it. Once the water returns to the boil you can turn it down a little, but be sure to maintain a boil, not a simmer. Grate about 2/3 cup of good Parmesan and 1/3 cup of good Romano, or use all Parmesan if that’s what you have. These measurements refer to loosely packed measuring cups. My trip to Florence convinced me that Americans over-sauce and over-cheese their pasta. Personally I don’t meaure grated cheese in any formal way, and prefer to think in terms of two loose, scant handfuls of grated cheese.
When the pasta is ready, pour out into a strainer, return to the pan, toss with a glug of good olive oil, toss in the meat mixture and half the cheese, plate, sprinkle with the rest of the cheese, and toss some toasted pine nuts on top if you like. Eat and savor this splendid green.
By the way, I estimate that a “glug” is about two tablespoons. But in a dish like this, use kitchen sense rather than measurements. How much olive oil do you need in the skillet to keep the meat and garlic from sticking, and how much olive oil do you need to give a light delicious sheen to your pasta and greens? Your eyes are a better guide than a measuring spoon.
My garden is intended as a food garden, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a treat for the senses as well, and nothing lifts my spirits in late winter like bright crocuses blooming away in whatever appalling circumstances the season hands them. I strongly recommend at least a dozen bulbs of the cream-yellow Crocus crysanthus “Cream Beauty.” It’s always the first to bloom for me, and if you put it in the warmest part of your yard it will bloom in February in the Albuquerque area, a visible harbinger that your garden, like you, has survived another winter.