Fuck kale. Once a year, my gardener friend will earnestly encourage me to grow the filthy veg, and every year I remind her that my opinion on the matter has never wavered. (“I know, I know, but the rabe is so good!”) While I will, ‘til my dying breath, extoll the lack of any virtue in godforsaken kale, I can concede kale rabe is perfectly edible. But the thing is — it’s not more tasty than any other kind of rabe, and certainly not an excuse for cursing the planet with another kale plant.
The thing is, you should be eating rabe (also known as “raab”), and the world is full of it, especially right now, in the flush of spring. If you’re not gardening, your exposure to rabe has probably been exclusively through broccoli (sometimes known as rapini, and, as it happens, not actually broccoli at all), but in truth, rabe is simply the flower shoots of vegetables that have bolted.
What is bolting?
To dig in a little here (heh): The point of vegetable gardening is often for plants to flower, and for those flowers to be pollinated by our sexy buzzing friends. They then produce fruit in the form of a tomato or pepper or peapod. For some vegetables, the root itself is the prize — your turnips, radishes, and carrots. And in the case of our brassicas, the parts we eat are actually the blooms themselves — Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, mustard greens.
When plants are dunzo, they go to seed, which means then send up flower stalks. Those flowers open, and the flower seeds are what become new plants. Since the plant is now spending all of its energy making those seeds, the base of the plant tends to suffer taste-wise. When this happens, we call it “bolting,” and it happens a lot during temperature shifts.
What is rabe (or raab)?
Normally, you would harvest those seeds and pack them away til next year, but in some cases, like brassicas, if you catch them before the flowers open, you have a brand new vegetable to enjoy in the kitchen. This magnificent happenstance is rabe.
Rabe is a delightful consolation prize for this time of year, when winter gardens are done and spring crops haven’t shown up yet. While you might not be able to get ahold of anything besides broccoli rabe if you’re not a gardener or gardener-adjacent, the greens section of Asian markets are a great place to try.
I spend many afternoons grabbing a bowl and filling it with rabe from Brussels sprouts, cabbage, arugula, and broccoli (but never kale). They don’t take much to be delicious. I snack as I pick because even raw, they’re pretty damn good. Much as you would with sprouts, you’ll notice slight flavour differences between them. While Brussels and cabbage rabe are mild, arugula and mustard green rabe are spicy, but all four of the following preparations can be used for any type of rabe.
Rabe as a snack
Either eaten raw as crudités, or with a little EVOO, salt, and pepper, or baked with the same and a splash of citrus juice, the crunch of rabe is delightful all on its own.
Rabe greens in oyster sauce
The real delight of a good Chinese restaurant is what they do with greens, and I get very excited when I see the dim sum cart approaching with plates of Chinese broccoli, lacquered with umami-rich oyster sauce. To get a similar taste at home, wash your rabe, and then add an inch or two of water to a deep sauté pan. Lightly salt it, and when the water comes to a hard simmer, toss in your rabe. It should brighten very quickly, signifying it’s cooked. Quickly cool the rabe in cold water, then place on a towel to dry. You can also give it a whirl in a salad spinner if you have one.
Empty the pan and return it to the heat. Add 1 tablespoon of sesame oil to the pan, and once shimmering, 1 teaspoon of slivered ginger and 1 teaspoon of slivered garlic into the pan. Move it around while the pan is on medium-high for 60 seconds, and then add the cold and hopefully dry rabe back to the pan and move it around to coat for 60 seconds.
Place all the contents onto a plate, and then pour oyster sauce on top to your taste.
Sautéed rabe with slivered almonds and balsamic
This is an easy way to bump almost any vegetarian meal up a bit. Simply sauté the rabe in a pan on medium-high heat with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic, making sure to move the rabe around often so it gets both coated with the oil and gets a nice sear on it. This should take 60-90 seconds. Drizzle balsamic vinegar onto the vegetables and move them around again, taking time to taste so you can adjust the balance of sweet from the balsamic with salt. Now toss in a hand full of slivered almonds and stir to coat for 15 seconds or so, then remove from the heat and serve. Imagine this on top of risotto, polenta (or a griddled polenta cake), a bowl of creamy white beans, or if you’re not vegetarian, a perfectly cooked steak or chop. Some shaved parmesan on top would not be a miss.
Rabe fried rice
As often as I lean into Asian food influences, it’s not my culture, so I am always, at best, appreciating the work of others. The best tip I ever received for making fried rice was from Jane Hashimawari who spent much of the pandemic cooking on Instagram with a dry humour I find particularly fun to watch. She takes cooked rice that is at least a day old, so it’s dried out, then breaks it apart with her hands. She then ensures that each rice grain is coated in oil before frying it in the pan.
I start fried rice by cooking the individual ingredients off, and in this case, while you can add anything else you might enjoy, including seafood, meat, and other vegetables, I find that a fried rice with just ginger, garlic, rabe, and egg is a satisfying meal. Sauté the rabe before adding in the rice, being generous with sesame oil. Add your soy sauce or other flavoring now (I use this recipe from Woks of Life to get a nice balanced taste from honey, Shaoxing wine, and soy sauce). Just before you’re finished, it’s time to add your eggs so they can scramble. When it comes off the stove, I finish with a little sesame seed on top.
The beguiling thing about rabe is that most people don’t even know about the treasure trove bolting up in their garden right now. It would only be polite to point it out, as you promenade through the neighbourhood this weekend in search of spring skies. As you wander, feel free, as I do, to lean over and whisper into the inexplicably inedible but popular leaves of the world’s favourite brassica: “Fuck you, kale, and your completely average rabe.”