rapini and how to make it tasty

Rapini

How do you solve a problem like…..rapini? On the shelf, it looks so adorable, bright emerald green baby broccoli flowers amid plenty of leaves that look like mustard greens, with crispy-looking jade green stems…

rapini, raw and innocent looking

You may think, well, there’s nothing to that but to pop it in a pan with some garlic, and…Yum! But should you do that very thing, you are likely to see troubled looks on the faces of your fellow diners—they trusted you, and you give them this?—and may end up barely able to swallow what seemed like a great idea.

If that sounds as if it comes from bitter (pun very much intended) experience with this particular vegetable, you have perceived correctly. I once innocently sauteed up a pan of rapini, blithely served it to Steve and Henry. I insist on honest reactions to my creations here, and I got them. Steve, normally a totally easy keeper on the vegetable front, said, “Wow. This is horrible.” Henry stood up and poured his in the garbage. Steve and I followed suit.

Rapini, you saucy trickster! You’re not broccoli at all, but a very stylish member of the turnip family. Hence the extreme bitterness. So why bother, when you could just get broccoli, which is honestly pretty hard to screw up? Because if you can get rapini right, it’s a wonderful way to zazzle up your taste buds. Tempered correctly, which you will shortly learn how to do, rapini provides a pleasant bang of bitterness, a wonderful texture—it doesn’t get mushy, but you also won’t feel like a horse chewing it—and a veritable powerhouse of nutrition. Vitamin K and C, cancer-fighting properties, anti-inflammatory, alkalizing: Read all about it at this link (though I caution against preparing the soup recipe unless you follow the de-bittering step here).

What is this magical step to render rapini ravishing? A big old pot of boiling water. Bring it to a boil, throw in about a tablespoon of salt, and blanch for about 2 minutes. (I break off any tough-looking stems prior to boiling.) The process mellows the bitterness to a manageable amount, and the broccoli stays bright green. Then simply drain, squeeze out as much water as possible, and chop coarsely. The amount shown below is the yield from the big batch of rapini at the top of the page (probably about 2/3 of a pound).

Rapini loves garlic. Heat your pan, heat some oil (olive is perfect), sauté your super thin garlic slices with a little salt for about 45 seconds so they’re just starting to turn gold. Then add your chopped rapini.

Rapini is no delicate creature. I give it about 8 minutes, but it can go longer. You’ll end up with a lovely big batch that you can keep on hand for about 3 days and throw into all kinds of things.

The night I made this up, Steve threw a big handful into some soup. I had some naan on hand, which I brushed with a little garlic oil, toasted briefly in the oven, then topped with the sauteed rapini, some leftover meatballs sliced thin, and some fresh mozzarella and a little parmesan. A heavenly little personal pizza. Don’t stop there. Throw some sauteed rapini into pasta or rice. Use it as your green in a bowl; it would be amazing as a bi bim bop component. Just one warning: Now that you know how rapini should taste, you would be wise to avoid ordering it in U.S. restaurants, and if you see it in a deli case, be sure to get a sample. Rapini always looks good. It stays bright green pretty much no matter what.

Of course, if you see it in Italy, go nuts. They kind of invented the stuff.



kale, stemmed and ready for slicing

Kale: How to Love It Again

I first encountered kale at a Portuguese Christmas dinner. But not like this.

kale, stems removed, ready for the knifeSo a little background—but if you want to jump past the story straight to the cooking, click here. My first husband was half Portuguese on his mother’s side, but looked entirely Portuguese. The German half of his genes always eluded me, probably just as well given that neither of us ever got along with his father. His mother didn’t either; when I met Karl, they’d been long divorced. Karl was born in New London, CT, then moved to New Milford before coming to New York to act. He made his living as a bartender. I knew him for exactly 5 years. We met on July 10, 1984, and he died on July 10, 1989. He was fond of saying, “The 80s are NOT my decade.”

Since my family was all in my native California when Karl and I were in love in NYC, we would spend Christmases with his mom and her many Portuguese relatives and friends near Danbury, CT. That entailed a huge Portuguese dinner, complete with Bacalhau, salt codfish, and a lot of other stuff I wouldn’t eat. Alas, I grew up picky, and before I learned to eat—which was about when I learned to cook, a few years later—even true love couldn’t get me to sample food I deemed “weird.”

But one dish passed my muster: Kale Soup. You cannot, at least in my experience, go anywhere with Portuguese cooks and avoid kale soup. It is wonderful stuff, the green leaves stemmed, rolled into tight cigar-shaped rolls, and sliced into perfect ribbons, alongside grated potatoes cooked to disintegration, and spicy linguiça sausage adding a tiny amount of fire and savory fat to the mix.

The holy trinity of kale, potatoes, and pork unite ever and again in cuisines around the world; when meat is scarce or simply opted out of, kale and potatoes do just fine. But what separates cooks who did kale before it was cool is the cutting technique. Karl’s Portuguese relatives knew this; apparently, most prep cooks dishing up inedible lacinato salads at high-end delis across the country do not.

Because kale is sturdy. Hell, it’s downright tough. It’s a winter crop, and it’s been growing for literally millenia. Dinosaur kale is a thing in more ways than one—as in, not only does it look like the stuff that friendly stegosauri tread underfoot in those 19th century engravings, they actually chomped it down.

You, my poppets, should not feel as if you need T-Rex choppers to finish your kale salad. Yet often, I do. My son brought home a bag of pre-cut kale from Trader Joe’s the other day; the leaves had been cut, but the stems kept intact. People, those stems could dent a molar. Meanwhile, those clueless prep cooks referred to earlier merrily tear the leaves into 1-inch squares and then toss it with a simple dressing. Time after time, I’ve seen kale salads languishing, unfinished, on otherwise clean plates. They looked like a great idea, but nobody had the stamina to chew, chew, chew more than a bite or two.

So here’s how you get the kale-traumatized back into the garden.

Kale: Two Musts

  1. Chop finely. You can do the cigar style roll, which isn’t difficult at all and looks impressive. Or you can just de-stem, stack, and chop. But cut it fine, whether you’re going to cook it or eat it raw. The only time I can countenance tearing the leaves is if you’re going to make chips, which alters the texture to a shattery crunch. For either cooked or raw dishes, I reiterate, CUT IT FINE.

shred kale by slicing it finely

2. Pamper any kale you intend to eat raw with a little oil and salt massage. You don’t need much of either. Then just put on a short-ish song—Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs is a good one—and rub, rub, rub the toughness away. (BTW, if you’re adding cabbage to the mix—a combination that works nicely and that I’m seeing fairly often—don’t massage the cabbage along with the kale unless you like really soft cabbage. I don’t. )

pamper raw kale with an olive oil and salt massage

Kale: The Treatment

I do love this stuff, so it will be coming up a lot. For now, I leave you with my favorite super simple sauteed kale…

sauteed kale, simplest side ever

and an easy salad.

kale, served raw in a salad

Either makes a welcome addition to your holiday table, a relief from the truckloads of starch and sugar, and a bounty of fiber on a day that can be a bit rough on the belly.

And watch over the next couple of months as I revisit my first husband’s family soup, as well as incorporate these glorious prehistoric leaves in other surprising ways.

cranberries in their raw state

Cranberries in the Kitchen

Cheery and garnet-colored when raw, deep rich ruby when cooked: Cranberries beautify any harvest or holiday celebration. Bags begin to appear in U.S. stores right around Halloween. I recommend you stock up; they freeze well, and their tart, spiky flavor cuts through rich fare like a sharp knife through a tomato. And while November and December tend to be especially indulgent months, you may still get a craving for cranberries off-season. You’ll be able to whip out a bag, thaw it in no time, and slam together a sauce that you can use to perk up all sorts of dishes, from cheesecakes to a sandwich, to a super healthy bowl.

cranberries

A little background: Cranberries hail from North America. Native Americans harvested them for food and medicine; they’re essential to pemmican, that paste of dried meat and berries that was an early (if not the first) energy bar. Loaded with vitamin C, antioxidants, pectin, and fiber, cranberries pack a health whallop in a small package. (For ridiculous amounts of data on their health benefits, see this article.)

Here’s the rub. Cranberries are CRAZY SOUR. To get them palatable for modern tastes, most of us need to sweeten them with a good amount of sugar. One part sugar to four parts cranberries is most often recommended, but that doesn’t exactly boost the nutritional value. What’s a health-conscious cook to do?

Here at Le Chou Fou, we try to help. So we recommend any of the following.

Cranberries: The Cooked

The cranberry sauce that I grew up was shaped like a can, complete with a bulge around the middle. Then Mom discovered how easy it was to make the stuff from scratch. Cooking the cranberries with some liquid and some sugar until the skin pops releases the pectin; let the fruit stand for a while—overnight is great—and the sauce thickens, giving you that nice jammy texture that’s so good on a sandwich.

Mom did the old school method: A package of cranberries, a heaping cup of sugar, and some water. But you can knock that sugar way back by getting creative with the liquid. You can use fruit juice that you have on hand, or diluted port wine (port full strength is a bit much). Maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar can substitute for table sugar at about 1/2 the amount; try a 1:8 ratio instead of 1:4. Mince an apple or pear for more pectin and sweetness. You can even add Stevia if you don’t find the taste too weird. (I always taste bitterness with Stevia, but Steve doesn’t mind it.)

Additionally, cranberries love spices and strong flavorings: cinnamon, clove, fresh ginger, rosemary, thyme. All of those contribute to a richer, more interesting cranberry sauce that isn’t so heavily dependent on sugar. Here’s my recipe blueprint for cooked cranberry sauce. Feel free to to make it your own.

ruby red cranberry beet sauce

Cranberries: The Raw

Raw cranberry relish sparkles—literally, from all the sugar crystals. It’s lovely and wonderful, but the most difficult of the three options to make without sugar. Nonetheless, the same rules apply. Grate in an apple or pear dipped in cider vinegar (less puckery than lemon juice and helpful in keeping the apple or pear from turning brownish). Be generous with orange peel and chopped orange flesh. The great thing here is that you can add the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Steve and I like it with just 1 tablespoon; that a 1:16 ratio, which we think is pretty cool. (The courageous can substitute Stevia.) Always, always, always taste test until you hit the proportions that work for you and any people who may be joining your table. Here’s my recipe blueprint for raw cranberry relish.

Sparkling Raw Cranberry Orange Relish

Cranberries: Ketchup!

My head remains on my shoulders; I assure you, I have not lost it. Despite what the Heinz corporation would like you to believe, “ketchup” simply means a thick sweet/savory sauce. It can be made with any number of fruits, and the variety made from cranberries is particularly nice. It also works on anything regular old tomato ketchup will work on. The primary difference between cooked cranberry sauce and cranberry ketchup is the addition of onions and vinegar, as well as more savory spices than you’d typically use. But don’t kid yourself that you can eliminate the sugar altogether. Ketchup is meant to be sweet. And man, does it make a dandy topper for a potato waffle (I promise to do a video and post on vegetable waffles soon.) As above, start with a 1:8 ratio, then increase as you taste. Here’s my recipe for sweet savory cranberry beet ketchup.

Sweet Savory Cranberry Beet Ketchup, made from cranberries, beets, and spices

Cranberries: Other Uses

Cranberries act like a shocking pink pillow in all white room, a welcome kapow or tartness. You just don’t want too many; imagine a dozen shocking pink pillows and you’ll get the idea. Toss a handful of cranberries into a smoothie with plenty of sweet fruit like bananas and mangos; they add beautiful crunch, a hint of pucker, and a ton of antioxidants. Add them to a bowl of vegetables destined to be roasted, coating everything with oil and spices. Fold leftover sweet cranberry sauce or raw cranberry relish into a cheesecake or batch of muffins to turn those comfy sweets into jewel-studded divas of the dessert table. Add any of the recipes in this post to sandwiches, or as the sweet component of a bowl meal. Throw some on top of mashed sweet potatoes. And know that, thanks to a little forethought, you can indulge your cranberry love whenever you like.