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Let’s Sauté Some Rapini, Because I Forgot It’s Memorial Day Weekend

A big bowl of rapini
Photo by Albert Burneko/Illustration by Chris Thompson

Listen. This week was terrible. The very least important and dumbest effect of this is that I forgot that it would end with Memorial Day weekend. So I did not think of, like, grill-foods to write about, burgers or steak or Italian sausages or anything like that. I simply snapped a photo of some tasty rapini that I had sautéed and started working on the blog, and then on Friday afternoon Defector Editor-in-Chief Tom Ley offhandedly mentioned Memorial Day and I was like, "Oh shit." So you are going to have to get by with rapini this weekend, instead of anything else. Those are the rules and no, I am sorry, I cannot make an exception.

You might know rapini better as "broccoli rabe," but it is not broccoli of any sort and isn't even related to broccoli except in the broad sense that all terrestrial life shares various prokaryotic ancestry, which is probably why rapini's stalks have blossoms at the top that kind of vaguely resemble broccoli. I call it by it's all-in-all much sexier non-lie name, rapini. Rapini is popular in southern Italian cooking, but in Italy they do not call it rapini. Frankly I don't know who calls it rapini other than me. I must have heard it somewhere. This is not a damn language blog. The point here, other than that it's Saturday now and this blog is supposed to go live on Defector dot com in like 10 minutes or whatever, is to cook the stuff, which is delicious and hearty and very easy and also a useful doorway into a method of cooking a large variety of vegetables so that they will be tasty and good.

Hoo buddy, look at the time. Let's get cracking, while I still have a job.

Here are some things that you will need.

You will need some rapini. Typically rapini comes in bunches, each individual, uh, rapi ... no? about a foot long, tied together around the stalks; a bunch can look like a lot, but isn't. Trimmed and blanched and cooked, a bunch will just do for two adults who actually like vegetables as other than a grim dietary sacrifice in the name of balancing out a steak. However many bunches you get, you will want to wash them pretty well under cold water to get off any dirt they brought with them from the farm; likely you will also want to trim off the bottom inch or so of the rapini stalks, which can be a bit too fibrous to enjoy.

You will need at least one nice big clove of garlic per bunch of rapini. These you will slice thin. You will need some red chili flakes. You will need some olive oil. I will never measure olive oil. I won't damn do it! You will need several hearty glugs of olive oil. You will need salt and pepper. And you will need oh, maybe like a third of a cup of bread crumbs per bunch of rapini. That's all for the food ingredient stuff, unless you decide you also want to grate some sharp pecorino over everything later on.

As for the cooking stuff, you'll need a big heavy pot full of water, and you'll need a wide, heavy skillet that can handle high temperatures, like stainless steel or cast iron. Later on you'll be scooping big dripping bunches of rapini up out of boiling water with some need for haste, so if you have a long-handled mesh strainer or wire spider, that'd be great; you'll also need a pair of tongs and maybe another implement (wooden spoon, silicone spatula, reasonably fresh beach sandal) for manipulating and lifting rapini as it's cooking in a hot pan, so if you don't have the mesh strainer or wire spider, the tongs can probably pull off both roles. You'll need your biggest mixing-type bowl full of ice, mostly ice, and just enough very cold water that the ice can float and slosh around and you can conceive of this as a "bath," and you'll need a colander. If I think of anything else, I'll let you know. Let's cook.

On the stove, bring the big pot of water up to a boil. Also, dump some salt in there and stir it in; the water should be as salty as pasta water, which is to say it should be pretty salty. The rapini isn't going to spend much time in there, so it's not going to absorb a ton of salty flavor from the water, but it'll help.

OK so what we're doing here is blanching and shocking. This, for the unfamiliar, is a cooking process whereby you give an uncooked food ingredient a quick bath in boiling water (this is the blanching), then immediately take it out of the boiling water and plunge it into an ice bath (the shocking), to completely stop the cooking it briefly underwent. This ensures that only some of a physical and chemical processes of cooking will be activated, and then, particularly in the case of fruits and vegetables, to shut those processes down quickly, before they can brown the food or make it mushy. In green vegetables it is, among other things, a way to preserve their bright green color through the rest of their cooking; you can blanch, for example, a spear of asparagus, shock it, then cook it later, and see that it will keep a brighter and lovelier color than if you'd just cooked it straight away without the blanching and shocking. This is why, when you order a dish with vegetables in it at a nice restaurant, they always look good as hell. (Or anyway it is one of the reasons. The other is that they were cooked by highly skilled professionals.)

I have been guilty of rolling my eyes at blanching and shocking in the past, when I encounter it in recipes for home cooking, and I will be again: When I hear of non-restaurant cooks blanching and shocking freaking basil leaves to make pesto, for example. Get out of my face with that! A basil leaf is freaking boiled away to nothing by the time it has been in the water for five seconds. Bringing an entire pot of water to boil just to spend four harrowing seconds blanching a bunch of basil leaves and then frantically rescuing them all into an ice bath before they wilt to the texture of wet toilet paper and turn the color of avocado skin is not worth it just to preserve their bright-green color through the process of chopping and pulverizing them into paste! In a restaurant that pot of water might sit there boiling while industrial quantities of various vegetables pass through it; likewise the ice-bath. There might be someone whose whole job during the morning prep shift is just blanching and shocking vegetables. Under those circumstances: Sure, blanch away. In a home kitchen, that's bonkers. And anyway dark-green pesto is very pretty and perfectly fine, especially measured against the tedium of adding the blanching and shocking steps, and the nonzero risk that the basil leaves will be destroyed by those very steps.

But in rapini's case, the blanching and shocking, I am sorry to say, is a good idea. For one thing the rapini can stand up to it without needing to be snatched back out of the boiling water nearly as soon as it went in, and the shocking can afford to take more than, like, three desperate seconds without the certainty that all you've done is ruin what you were trying to cook. Also, the very minor amount of cooking the rapini gets from the blanching will give it a welcome head start on the cooking; it's easier and quicker to sauté rapini when it has been rendered ever so slightly soft and wobbly by its quick hot-water dip. Also, blanching reduces the bitterness of rapini; personally I do not give a damn about this and enjoy the bitterness of rapini, but maybe you want to take the edge off. And also the blanched rapini are just very pretty. The stalks are super duper pretty! Anyway let's do this.

OK. Water boiling? Check. Ice bath stationed nearby? Check. Strainer or spider or tongs at the ready? Check. Colander stationed over the sink drain? Check. Plunge the rapini into the boiling water.

If the pot is big enough and the water deep enough, and, crucially, the ice-bath deep enough, for all of the rapini at once, that's grand. But it's good to err on the side of conservatism, here: If the ice bath isn't big enough—if it isn't really dang big—then plunging all the hot rapini into it will warm it up beyond usefulness, and the rapini will continue cooking from its own residual heat in there, and you'll lose the benefits of having blanched it in the first place. I would say that if the total volume of your ice bath, between the water and the ice, is less than a gallon, then you should not put more than one bunch of boiling-hot rapini into it at a time. This will also mean boiling the rapini in batches, then, since you can't exactly let some of the rapini boil longer while it awaits its shocking.

When the rapini hits the water, you will see its color flush to an extremely vivid and bright green within moments. Hell yeah. That's what we're going for. You're going to leave it in the boiling water for 30 seconds. Then you're going to yank it outta there and immediately plunge it into the ice bath, and kinda stir it around in there so that there's not a big clump of rapini all tangled together in the bath. A big clump of tangled rapini will retain its heat; detangled rapini all distributed through the bath will be helpless against the cold, ensuring their defeat.

It might take another 30 seconds to a minute for the rapini to cool completely, so that absolutely no cooking is happening inside it. You can stick your hand down in there and pinch a stalk and see if it feels warmer than the water at all. In any case, you can't just let the rapini sit in the ice bath all day, or it will dissolve. When it's completely cooled, get the rapini outta there and into the colander (if you're working in batches, it's good to use the tongs for this, so that you can leave the ice bath behind for the next batch; if not, just pour the whole bath into the colander). Taste one of those dang suckers, just to see how salty it is. Probably not very! If you're doing batches, uh, do the next one. Let's catch up when you're done with this part.

OK! Ready to move on??? This next part is gonna be quick. Let's see if I can fit it all into one paragraph, to make up for the 10,000-word essay about blanching and shocking from earlier. Heat up a few hearty glugs of olive oil in your skillet. When it's shimmering, chuck in the sliced garlic and the red pepper flakes, and grind some black pepper over it too; it should start sizzling right away. Move this stuff around with your tongs or your other implement of cooking until you can smell the garlic and the red pepper. This shouldn't be more than like 15 or 20 seconds; don't let the red pepper flakes turn black in there. Now add the rapini to the pan and sprinkle it with salt. Toss everything around with your what-have-you, so that the oil and garlic and red pepper coat all the rapini. It doesn't need a lot of cooking, somewhere from three to five minutes, so, uh, cook it for three to five minutes, until a sampled stalk is tender but still retains enough firmness to be satisfying. Dump the breadcrumbs in there and toss everything around so the breadcrumbs can get all oily, then immediately scoop everything outta there and into some kind of serving vessel. It's good to cook the rapini last, if you're making it as a side to something else, so that you can serve it right away, before the rapini gets too soft or the breadcrumbs absorb too much liquid from the vegetation and lose all their crunch.

If you worked in batches because you're making a lot of rapini, like for eight people or whatever, then maybe the above will seem impracticable to you. Maybe your skillet isn't big enough! Another way that you can do this is, you can spread the rapini thinly across a foil-lined roasting pan or hotel pan or cookie sheet and sock it into a 500-degree oven; while it's hanging out in there, you can cook the garlic and red pepper in the olive oil in your skillet until they're fragrant, chuck in the breadcrumbs, toss everything around for a minute, and then pair them with the rapini when it comes out of the oven, in like, oh, five or six or eight minutes. I've done it this way. It's fine.

In any event, now you can eat the rapini. Simply eat the rapini! It's nutty and hopefully still sharp, from its own native bitterness and from the garlic; it's spice-hot (but also hopefully temperature hot or something has gone badly awry); it's pleasingly oily and the balance between the silky leaves and the still-chewable stalks is nice. It's good. Does it suit Memorial Day? It's too late for me to consider that! It's already Saturday damn morning!

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