If you have been eyeing the bunches of broccoli rabe in your grocery store but passing them by because you are unsure how to cook this vegetable, here is your official cue to pick some up and discover something powerfully delicious and healthful.
The accompanying recipe is like Broccoli Rabe 101: a basic preparation all cooks should have in their back pockets to serve as a side for just about any Italian-style main, from pastas and pizzas to chicken piccata; to be piled on panini; or to be chopped and cooked into frittatas.
Broccoli rabe, also called rapini, is a more intensely flavorful, even more nutrient-packed cruciferous cousin of regular broccoli. Despite its name and appearance, it's not a type of broccoli but is more closely related genetically to turnip greens. Broccoli rabe has a mustardlike bitterness that becomes a mouthwatering taste dimension once mellowed by blanching the vegetable briefly before sauteing it with garlic in olive oil. That's all it takes to make this dish, which is an Italian restaurant standard and a staple in my home.
Although I typically avoid boiling vegetables in favor of steaming them — the more contact with water they have, the more water-soluble nutrients are lost — I make an exception for broccoli rabe. Steaming doesn't temper the bitterness quite enough for my taste. Just a minute in boiling water followed by a brief ice-water bath does the trick, and it is a step you can conveniently do several days in advance.
Interestingly, salting the water helps prevent nutrients from leaching out by creating a more even osmotic balance, but some salt will then be absorbed, so if you are watching sodium, cooking the broccoli rabe in unsalted water is fine. Either way, I figure you get more nutrients from a deliciously tasty vegetable eaten with abandon than from one that's not. This recipe is definitely the former, and a classic for a reason.