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Cime di Rapa—You’re the Top

A field of cime di rapa at the Saturday market in nearby Ostuni.

A field of cime di rapa at the Saturday market in nearby Ostuni.

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.

"What kind of world would it be without cime di rapa?" graffito found in in Alberobello.

Some graffiti found in nearby Alberobello: “What kind of world would it be without cime di rapa?”

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.

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa is one of the most satisfying ways to serve this exquisite brassica.

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa is one of the most satisfying ways to serve this exquisite brassica.

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.

Smothered cime di rapa in all their glory.

Smothered Cime di Rapa in all their glory.

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.

Cime di Rapa Suffchet are ready for their close-up.

Cime di Rapa Suffchet are ready for their close-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.

Franchi is a reliable brand of original Italian seeds available in the U.S.

Franchi is a reliable brand of original Italian seeds available in the U.S.

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

Method:

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.

Cime di Rapa and the aromi are stuffed tightly in the saucepan and covered for cooking.

The cime di rapa and the aromi are stuffed tightly in the saucepan and covered for cooking.

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.

The volume of the cime di rapa reduces by half at the end of the cooking time, leaving the leaves glossy and deep green.

The volume of the cime di rapa reduces by half at the end of the cooking time, leaving the leaves glossy and deep green.

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.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mmmmm reading this made me so hungry! At the Poeta Contadino in Alberobello, a few years ago I ate fresh ravioli stuffed with cime di rape which, while ravioli are not exactly Pugliese, were sublime… Have been meaning to try to make some ever since but not quite got round to it. If I do, come and eat them!

    March 6, 2013
    • Yes, let’s have a cime di rapa party before the season is over! Glad you liked the post. And as for Il Poeta Contadino, I’ve heard about it for years but haven’t yet been. It’s on the list . . .

      March 6, 2013
  2. Oh yum! Even your description is delicious! Thank you for the information on getting seeds in the US…I’ll let you know how it works out.

    March 7, 2013
  3. Catherine, I came upon your blog via Debra’s wonderful Bagni Di Lucca. How fortuitous that you have a recipe for cime di rapa. My local Farmer’s Market here in Adelaide, South Australia (http://www.adelaidefarmersmarket.com.au/www/home/) has a farmer from Calabria, Francesco Virgara, growing it locally in Willunga South Australia and selling it at the market! I will be there tomorrow and will give it a go! My mother’s parents were Italian from Abruzzo and we had it at my grandparent’s casa in Philadelphia growing up. That was a long time ago…I’ll report back.

    Ciao for now, Maria Luisa

    March 9, 2013
    • Hello, Maria Teresa! So glad you found my blog and that you are a devoted member of the cima di rape fan club, too. Let me know how the Australian version is . . . I’m really curious about how the taste is transmitted when it’s grown elsewhere. Your life sounds fascinating, by the way. Philadelphia to Adelaide with roots in Abruzzo . . . have you visited your relatives’ hometowns in Italy? I am incredibly curious about Australia and would love to visit at some point–Adelaide is on our list of Australian must-visit locations. When we get to the trip-planning stage, I’d love to chat with you about where to go, how long to visit, etc. Thanks for introducing yourself and buon appetito with the rape.

      March 9, 2013
      • Si Catherine,

        Ho visitato tante volte! Mio nonno era da Roseto degli Abruzzi. Mio nonna era da Morro d’Oro. Le due città sono nel norte d’Abruzzo, vicino Teramo. Ho fatto un Blog (in inglese) durante il mio viaggio in 2010.

        http://tenweeksinitaly.wordpress.com

        Spero che ritorni in 2014.

        Email a me (mltucker@optusnet.com.au) si tu ha domande riguardo di Adelaide e Australia. Sono venuta in Australia in 1981.

        Ciao for now.

        March 10, 2013
  4. What a wonderful way to get me to eat my greens! Awesome blog. Thanks!

    March 10, 2013

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