In the garden of bitter delights – broccoli rabe with pine nuts and pomegranate

I love it when food makes an appearance in folktales or mythology.  Trouble’s about to descend on River City.  When Rapunzel’s pregnant mother wakes in the night, craving broccoli rabe, we know her husband is in for a rough go.  When ravenous Persephone, kidnapped by Hades, is brought face-to-hungry-stomach with a pomegranate, ominous minor chords begin thrumming offstage.  (First rule of the Underworld – NO EATING!)  Shit is about to happen.  No matter.  Even as the voice in our head is crying No! Put down that apple! we sympathize, because in our hearts we’re chowing down right along with them.  Food is our Achilles’ heel.

Stealing a sorceress’s vegetables makes no sense to anyone who’s not a fan of broccoli rabe’s bitter pleasures.  But the rest of us have a soft spot for rabe.  Broccoli rabe is never absent from the Adams-Rivard refrigerator, either as leftovers from a meal or because I’ve steamed up a bunch to put on top of my oatmeal throughout the week, along with Pecorino Romano, a soft-boiled egg  and a drizzle of evoo.  I’d climb into the witch’s garden for a little rapini, which brings us to this week’s recipe: Broccoli Rabe with Pine Nuts and Pomegranate.  

Traditional recipes add pine nuts and currants or raisins to rabe.  Sugar (raisins) and fat (pine nuts, olive oil, feta) neutralize the alkaloids that cause rabe’s bitter flavor, as does blanching it for a couple of minutes in boiling water.  I’m convinced rabe is milder today that when I first encountered it twenty years ago.  These days we just saute or steam it without the bother of a pre-blanch, and it’s fine.

In regards to broccoli rabe, WWPD?  (What would Persephone do?) 

She’d add a few pomegranate seeds to the rabe, a sweet-tart wrinkle on the raisin motif.  And she’d be be happy to go to hell for it.

Ken

Broccoli rabe with pine nuts and pomegranate

Makes 4 side-dish servings

Ingredients:

  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 garlic cloves, sliced paper-thin, about ¼ cup
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 6 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
  • 1½ pounds broccoli rabe, washed and trimmed of tough or split stems and bruised leaves
  • Kosher salt
  • ½ to ¾ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons fresh pomegranate seeds
  • 2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses

Directions:

  1. Heat the olive oil and garlic in a large sauté pan over medium-low heat.  Cook until the garlic is just golden around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes.  Do not let the garlic burn.  Add the anchovy and cumin, increase the heat to medium and cook 30 seconds.  Add the broccoli rape with ½ cup water.  Season with salt and hot pepper flakes.  Cover and cook 5-6 minutes or until the lower stems are tender.
  2. Remove the lid.  Increase the heat to high to cook off any excess water and sear the broccoli rabe slightly.
  3. Transfer to a platter, sprinkle with pine nuts and pomegranate seeds and drizzled with pomegranate molasses.  Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Jody notes:

If Ken hasn’t convinced you that broccoli rabe isn’t as bitter as it used to be, you can simply blanch it in a large pot of salted water for 3 minutes or so, plunging it into ice water to stop cooking, and then draining it.  It will be much milder. 

To incorporate blanched rabe into the recipe, add it to the pan in place of the raw rabe.  Skip the step of adding water, and cooking with the lid on the pan.  Just cook with the garlic in the open pan–and only for 2-3 minutes instead of 5-6. 

Evolutionary biologists believe that the ability to taste bitterness is a protective mechanism.  Bitterness is an olfactory skull and bones, a warning, STAY AWAY!  POISON AHEAD!  It makes sense that bitter foods are typically acquired tastes. 

I believe that you can get used to–or even learn to love–flavors that initially put you off.  IF you try them over and over again.  Our own children progressed from broccoli to broccoli rabe.  You can’t completely hide a bitter flavor, so they always knew it was there and in their early years each of them danced their forks around the offending item.  They were only obligated to try a no-thank-you-taste.  Oliver, now 22, came to like rabe, as long as it has lots of garlic and olive oil.  Roxanne, 15, is still on the cusp.

Pomegranate tips. . .

A ripe pomegranate will have a taut rich red skin and a solid feel.  Its seeds will appear completely red.  Clear or partially colored seeds are a sign of under-ripe fruit; brown seeds mean the fruit is turning.  Avoid pomegranates with soft spots–the fruit is over-ripe–and bruised seeds (see the final photo).

Pomegranate juice will happily stain your clothes.  My own solution is to open the fruit under water.  First make four shallow cuts in the skin from the calyx (the crown on top of the pomegranate) to the base.  The trick is to avoid cutting through the skin into the seeds, which will release the juice.  Cut out the calyx.  Peel back the rind, immerse the pomegranate in a bowl of water and break the fruit into quarters.  Run your fingers under the seeds to pop them off the membranes.  The seeds will fall to the bottom and the membranes will float to the top.  Skim and drain.  No stains.

FYI, I KNOW my pine nuts are unevenly toasted.  I did them over a burner rather than in the oven–and then I turned away to answer an email.  Danger kitchen!  I think we’re finally going to replace the little Black and Decker toaster oven we gave up years ago.

Finally, I’m opening a new restaurant in the Boston waterfront district next week, TRADE, so my notes may be a little intermittent for the next month or so.  Restaurant openings are always consuming and thrilling and exhausting.  Wish me luck!

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10 thoughts

  1. Jody and Ken: Best of luck with Trade. Since moving to Scottsdale from Boston (and working at the Charles Hotel back in 2002/2003, I miss the New England Ambiance, ocean and delectable eateries. It’s heartwarming to know that your business is thriving so much so that you are opening another restaurant and one on the waterfront. I’ll be keeping up with you via the internet but when I get back to Beantown I’ll certainly visit Trade.
    Warm regards, Donna Lowell

      • Hey Jody
        Was online here looking up as to why the brococli rabe I cooked last night was bitter than any other time I have cooked it and came across this recipe which sounds delicious. It was a pleasant surprise to see your name and picture associated with it, then to see a reply from Donna Lowell brings a blast from the past. I hope your new restaurant is a success! Next time I am in Boston I will have to check it out…

        Jodie Reardon (formerly Robishaw from the Charles)

  2. This recipe is so timely! I guess I fall into the “keep-trying-it-you’ll-learn-to-love-it” group, but Chris loves it and, because I love him, I include it for dinner once in a while. I happened to pick some up this week so you can imagine how thrilled I was to see you have the answer for me! I love pomegranates, pine nuts and garlic—-and your cooking! Can’t wait to give it a shot.
    All the best for Trade—- we look forward to adding it to our list of favorite places!

  3. I hope I don’t go to hell for it, but I am absolutely going to try your savory oatmeal dish soon, it sounds fabulous. I am a huge fan of rabe, and love the idea of having the pom arils stand in for raisins, they are much more colorful too. Looking forward to trying TRADE, hope to get there soon. Best of luck!

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