Cime di Rapa—You’re the Top
One of the more annoying habits of expatriates who write about their adventures in foreign lands is the tendency to drone on and on about what they’re doing, seeing and eating that you can’t possibly replicate at home. So I will ask your forgiveness in advance as I indulge for a minute. Or consider this fair warning, because I’m writing about cime di rapa today. You can’t get them anywhere else but southern Italy and Puglia is the epicenter of its cultivation. We have become slavish fans of cime di rapa and find ourselves firmly in their thrall.
Cime di rapa has many aliases depending upon its origin. In Naples, they are called friarielli, the Spanish call it grelos and in the U.S., it’s known as broccoli rabe. Yet each regional variation is not exactly alike. All of them are proud members of the brassica family, with deep green, spiked leaves that surround clusters of green buds—buds that resemble small heads of broccoli. Cultivated cime di rapa probably descends from a wild herb related to the turnip, with variants literally sprouting up all over the Mediterranean. Perhaps this is why cime di rapa are often called turnip tops when translated, although I’ve never seen a turnip top that looks or tastes like these do. The smaller the bud cluster, the younger and more prized the plant; sometimes small, edible yellow flowers may be blooming among its buds. The flavor of cime di rapa is often described as nutty, bitter, and pungent, a sensory bomb Italians call amarognolo. Cime di rapa are loaded with healthy antioxidants and are a terrific source of vitamins A, C and K, as well as potassium, calcium and iron.
I used to think that broccoli rabe in the U.S. was an acceptable stand in for cime di rapa, but I was so wrong. Authentic cime di rapa’s characteristic amarognolo sneaks up and hits your tastebuds, permeating your senses while leaving you craving more. So I’m becoming ridiculous about cime di rape, asking everyone I know about their favorite preparation methods so I can add them to our dining rotation. The season will be over soon, so I’m getting a little desperate, sneaking cime di rapa in wherever possible.
On the return leg of a bike ride with some friends the other day, we stopped at la casa della mamma for a restorative snack to fortify us for the ride home. Mamma, also known as Vitalba Argentieri, obliged in true Pugliese fashion, setting out all manner of treats to keep us going. She was in the process of preparing cime di rapa suffchet (literally “suffocated” or “smothered” cime di rapa in the local dialect) and the aroma that wafted from her kitchen was enough to lure me away from quince jam pastry (torta alla melecotogne), almond cookies (biscotti alle mandorle) and dark chocolates (cioccolatini fondenti). When I wandered into the kitchen, Vitalba shared her recipe, then sliced some semolina bread and served us the finished cime di rapa suffchet as an afternoon pick-me-up.
Fresh from the garden, these cime di rapa were unbelievable: deeply infused with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, hot peppers, bay leaves from the tree outside the kitchen window and the cime di rape themselves, they were meltingly tender, with a lingering bitter finish made more complex by the aromi (spices and herbs). I’m told that this preparation method is a specialty of Cisternino, Ceglie Messapica and the small Valle d’Itria towns that are closest to Brindisi. In Noci, a town in the province of Bari just on the edge of the Valle d’Itria, cime di rapa suffchet are not typically served.
Try this recipe with broccoli rabe you grow yourself or find in a farmer’s market from a trusted vendor. It’s also well worth searching for authentic cime di rapa seeds and sowing it yourself; here’s a good source in the U.S. It’s wonderful atop toasted artisan bread, but you can also toss it with pasta in a sauté pan, adding a little chopped anchovy for even more flavor. Cime di rapa want a robust red wine to accompany them, perhaps a primitivo or a nero di troia from Puglia. Try to keep yourself from eating them right out of the saucepan with a fork before you serve them . . .
Cime di Rapa “Suffchet”—Smothered Broccoli Rabe
1 lb. broccoli rabe (real cime di rapa if you can get them are best, though)
2 or 3 Mediterranean bay leaves
2 or 3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
1 or 2 peperoncini (dried red chili peppers), broken up
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 to 1/3 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
Splash of water
Prepare the cime di rape by pulling off the leafy sections and roughly chopping them. Chop the thin parts of the stalks with the green buds into 1/2 inch pieces. Shave the tough outer layers of the stalks with a peeler. If the stems are very thick, make two vertical cuts from the bottom end of the stalk about halfway up its length, making an X that allows them to cook evenly. Here’s a great video in Italian that demonstrates the procedure.
Wash the cime di rapa in abundant water, then drain lightly, leaving the water that clings to them. Place the cime di rapa in a saucepan that will hold all of them tightly; you need to stuff them into the saucepan so that there is no extra room at the top of the saucepan at all. Tuck the bay leaves, garlic cloves and pepperoncini in and around the cime di rapa, pushing them into the mass of greens. Add salt abundantly and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil liberally over the greens and add an additional splash of water, no more than a few tablespoons.
Cover the pan, pushing down on the mass of cime di rapa. Place the saucepan over medium high heat. Keeping an eye on things, allow the mixture to heat, stirring with a wooden spoon as the volume in the saucepan reduces. Stir from time to time, making sure that the mixture doesn’t scorch or burn. If necessary, add just a little water from time to time, but since the cime di rapa will release its own water, don’t be tempted to add too much water as it dilutes the flavor.
The cime di rapa will continue to cook for about 15-20 minutes at the most. They’re done when they are completely tender to the bite. There shouldn’t be any liquid in the pan. Add an additional drizzle extra virgin olive oil before serving if you like. Serve on grilled artisan bread as an appetizer, over pasta with a little of the pasta cooking water mixed in to make the mixture creamy or by itself as an accompaniment to grilled pork sausages or roast pork. Or just eat it right out of the pan on the stove and dispense with the table altogether.
Serves 4 . . . maybe.