Rapini is in every stall at the farmers’ market these days. Another name for broccoli rabe, it’s bitter and green and delicious and I can’t get enough, though sometimes I pause eating it to have some kale rabe… and then I switch back to rapini. I think at least some of my intense, eat-it-every-night attitude is pure seasonal happiness: rabes are usually the first greens I see at the market after a winter of leeks, beets and cabbage (no disrespect) and they are as squeal-inducing as a giant neon sign reading “Asparagus is coming, and so is rhubarb, and strawberries, and cherries.” I am ready.
Besides being a sign of all the goodness right around the corner, I actually like the taste of rapini; it’s like a very leafy, tender broccoli, or a green with a thicker stalk. It is slightly bitter, so I often pair it with lots of onion and some red pepper flakes, for a bitter-sweet-spicy take, or with tomatoes, as I did in this recipe. Hardy souls eat it raw or slightly blanched, but I prefer a saute or simmer; when I’m cooking a dish that my husband will eat too, I blanch it for a few minutes beforehand to tone down the bitterness. (I’ve read that you can soak it in water to reduce the bitter flavor, but I haven’t tried that.) I first encountered broccoli rabe in an Italian soup with sausage, garlic and white beans and I’ve made countless meals with variations of that flavor combination. Here, I started with rapini and added tomatoes because I like them together, added anchovies (don’t be frightened of them! they can be your best friend in the kitchen!) because I love them in red sauces, and built from there. The polenta was a treat, a nice change from pasta, orzo or quinoa. Together, they were magic: slightly bitter, toothsome rapini, sweet tomatoes, the salty background bite of anchovies (it’s not fishy!) and creamy goodness of polenta. An easy and delicious way to eat your greens.
Rapini in Tomato Sauce with Cheesy Polenta
- 1 bunch of rapini (about 1 lb.)
- 1 T. olive oil
- 5-6 anchovy fillets, chopped (or 2 T. anchovy paste)
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 15 oz. can (or equivalent) of diced tomatoes
- 1/4 c. red wine (optional)
- salt & pepper
- 2 c. water
- 1 c. milk
- 1 c. polenta (cornmeal)*
- 2 T. butter
- salt & pepper
- 1/4 c. parmesan cheese (or more to taste)
Prepare the rapini by washing it well and then cutting the bottom 1/2″ from the stems, often very tough and woody. Roughly chop the rapini into 3-4″ lengths and blanch it in boiling water for about 4 mins.; drain and set aside. In a skillet over medium-high heat, combine the olive oil and anchovies; if using fillets, use the back of a spoon to mash them into the oil and create a paste. They should “melt” fairly easily; don’t be concerned about small pieces left whole. Add the garlic to the anchovy oil and cook for a minute or two before adding the tomatoes and red wine, if using; stir in the blanched rapini. Lower the heat to medium and cover; allow the sauce to simmer for at least 15 mins. and up to half an hour. If you plan to cook the sauce longer, consider adding the rapini after 10-15 mins. of cooking so it does not turn to mush.
Meanwhile, heat the milk and water in a saucepan over medium heat; it should steam and bubble a bit but not boil. When it reaches that bubbling point, add the cornmeal while whisking constantly. Continue to stir while the polenta thickens, about 4-5 mins. (It can take up to 10 mins., depending on the cornmeal you use and the thickness you desire.) When the polenta reaches a consistency you like, add the butter, salt, pepper & parmesan cheese and stir gently until the butter is melted; serve hot with a spoonful of sauce over the top. Leftover cold polenta can be sliced and browned in a skillet for a tasty breakfast treat.
*I prefer the cornmeal you can buy in bulk, which is usually separated into fine and coarse varieties, sometimes multiple “steps” of fineness. The coarse cornmeal will often be labelled as polenta; this is the one I use. Bob’s Red Mill also sells a nice polenta.