If you’ve never eaten cime di rapa (broccoli rabe and rapini for our American friends) you might find them difficult to enjoy the first time you try them. They’re quite bitter and they perfectly embody the “acquired taste” concept.
In general, Italians tend to love bitter flavours: think of artichokes, wild herbs like dandelion greens and chicory – yes, we actually eat them! – or veggies like Tuscan kale, rucola/arugula and endives. We are used to the bitter taste of vegetables, most of us from a very young age and especially in Liguria where I was born and in Southern Italy, where foraging wild herbs is still quite common.
Bitter foods are great for numerous reasons: they help the digestion, boost the microbiome, enhance the appetite and help with absorbing as many nutrients from our food as possible. If you’re interested in all their benefits, read this page by Dr. Axe.
This is one of the classic dishes I grew up with from age 8 to 22, the period I lived in Puglia. In this region, cime di rapa are sold everywhere in huge quantities and for a very cheap price during Winter and Spring, and are usually served with orecchiette pasta.
Cime di rapa is my nr. 2 favourite veggie (my nr. 1 being artichoke) and every time I find it in Amsterdam I’m a happy woman. My Mum also regularly sends it to me by courier, together with the freshest artichokes from the market (bless her) making me one of the many spoiled Italians abroad who receive il pacco da giù. 🙂
Here I’ve paired them with bay leaves, also quite bitter, and chilli pepper. Plus a good glug of extra virgin olive oil from Puglia which usually is, you guess it already, pretty bitter too (though it loses its pungency once heated). My pasta of choice: paccheri.
A little white wine helps to give an extra aromatic “layer” to this incredibly simple and yet iconic dish.
Should you want to try them, here’s the recipe I got from my dear friend Claudio, a little different from the classic one. To make the dish suitable for vegetarians and vegans skip the anchovies and add a little extra salt.
Pasta con cime di rapa alla pugliese
150 gr. short pasta (I’ve used paccheri)
600 gr. cime di rapa (weighed with stalks, leaves and florets)
6-7 tablespoons of e.v. olive oil
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 anchovy fillets in oil
2 bay leaves
½ dl. dry wite wine
2-3 dried chilli peppers (the very small ones) or a pinch of chilli flakes
Wash the cime di rapa well under the tap and then remove all the stalks and hard bits (strip the leaves by keeping only the leafy parts, the florets and the very tender and small floret stalks).
Heat the olive oil in a pan with a very thick bottom and add the peeled and crushed garlic cloves plus the anchovies (mash them with a fork), the bay leaves and the chilli. Leave to gently fry until the garlic becomes golden brown, then add the cime di rapa and let them gently wilt with the lid on the pan, moving them around every now and then.
Add the white wine and a pinch of salt, then cover with the lid so that they can cook in their own steam.
Leave to cook thoroughly with the lid on the pan and on a very low flame until they’re very tender and well cooked and the florets fall apart. Stir regularly to make sure they don’t burn. If necessary, add some hot water from time to time.
Season with more salt, if necessary.
In the meantime, cook the pasta very al dente in salted boiling water and then drain.
Add to the cime di rapa, stir and leave to cook with the veggies for a couple of extra minutes until it reaches the perfect bite. This also allows the pasta to absorb all the flavours a lot better.
Serve immediately with a little drizzle of good e.v. olive oil.
This dish is usually eaten without grated cheese.