Rapini with Orecchiette and Garlic
March 12, 2013 | Updated June 22, 2020
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Early spring is wild rapini season in Northern California. Vast fields of canary yellow wild mustard, or the dappled white and lavender of wild radishes, brighten up our lives as our days grow warmer and the light lingers longer. Yes, these are, to most people, weeds.
Not to me. To me they are one of the most bountiful harvests of the year — only to enjoy them, you must catch these “weeds” at precisely the right moment.
Depending on where you look, you can now find wild mustards and radishes — from a cook’s perspective there is no real difference — anywhere from full leafing out to full flower to just setting out flower buds. And if these flower buds look surprisingly like the rapini or broccoli rabe you buy in the store, that’s because they are the exact same thing.
I can’t remember exactly when I first made this rapini recipe. It was probably made with broccoli rabe, which I often see spelled broccoli raab for some reason. (They are the same thing, more or less.) I am sure it was back in New Jersey sometime in the 1980s. It looks like spindly broccoli florets, but it isn’t.
All are brassicas, yes, but over the centuries seedsmen have bred all the pungency out of broccoli. Rapini, on the other hand, retains that mustardy punch. I dig that punch. A lot.
You want to pick the buds of wild rapini before they’ve opened, although it’s OK if a few are turning yellow or white or purple. This one on the right is a wild radish; note the purple flower.
I am assuming you know what mustard greens look like. If not, go to any supermarket — they look the same. Another tip-off is the flower: All brassicas have four-petaled flowers. They are also called cruciferous vegetables for this reason; the flowers reminded whoever named them this, long ago, of The Cross.
When you find a patch, pick the buds about 6 to 8 inches down the stem. You’ll only eat the top 4 to 6 inches, but it’s nice to have a little extra leeway; this also helps keep the buds fresh.
You’ll want about a quarter pound per person for a normal dish, although I’ve eaten a half pound all by myself.
Normally by the time wild rapini is ready, the weather is in the 60s or even early 70s, which will do a number on tender greens. Keep them in the shade and in paper or cloth bags — plastic will make them sweat. Then, as soon as you get home, fill a large container, like a big plastic Tupperware or bowl, with ice water and soak the rapini (or mustard greens) in it for 30 minutes. They will emerge crisp and refreshed.
Shake them to get the excess moisture off, then put them in a plastic bag with a paper towel set inside; the towel absorbs excess moisture. Close the bag and the rapini or the greens will last up to a week this way — although they are never better than when just picked.
One more important note: While you will still see wild rapini when the weather warms, they will get impossibly bitter and pungent once your daily temperatures are in the 80s or higher. Wild rapini is a springtime treat, although you will sometimes get a smaller harvest in fall before the snow flies.
How to eat them?
My favorite rapini recipe is a simple stir fry, sauteed in butter or oil, chopped in an omelet, in a Greek pie like spanakopita, as a side dish to meat or fish (rapini is especially good alongside freshwater fish), or as the star in a pasta dish.
What follows is my take on a very traditional Southern Italian rapini recipe with orecchiette pasta. This is one of those “quick and easy” dishes you don’t often see on this site. Enjoy!
Wild Rapini with Orecchiette Pasta
- 1 pound rapini
- 1 pound orecchiette pasta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, sliced root to tip
- 5 garlic cloves minced
- 2 to 4 dried hot chiles, broken up
- 4 ounces salami, sliced or diced (optional)
- Lemon juice and ground black pepper to taste
- This first step is optional, but it make the rapini prettier. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it heavily; it should taste like seawater. Set up a bowl of ice water nearby. Boil the rapini for 90 seconds, then plunge into the ice water to stop cooking. This sets the jade green color. Either way, you need the boiling water for the pasta, so you might as well do it.
- Once the rapini has been blanched, add the orecchiette and cook until al dente. Use this time to chop the onion, garlic and salami, if using. Drain the pasta and toss with a little olive oil. Set aside.
- Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saute pan set over high heat. The moment it begins to smoke, add the onion and toss to combine. Sear the onion until you have some caramelized edges, stirring only every minute or so.
- Turn the heat down to medium-high and add the rapini, garlic, chiles and salami. Toss to combine everything. Saute for 2 minutes, then add the pasta and saute another minute, stirring often. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and black pepper. You can drizzle a little high-quality olive oil over the dish right when you serve, too.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
You know one thing I like best about your blog is that I come away a little bit smarter when I read it. And, I think my appreciation of rapini just skyrocketed. Thanks Hank.
Nick: Fascinating! I had no idea that older broccolis had that mustardy flavor. Good to know.
You say “not actually a broccoli,” but that’s a term with pretty hazy definition. Most brassica oleracea, when flowering, look like skinny broccoli. And they can all cross-pollinate – hence the outcry here in Oregon when GMO rapeseed is grown near veggie seed plots. Actually, a lot of the “wild raab” you find growing along farm roads is just volunteer rapeseed (canola) or other volunteer brassicas that have jumped the fence and are reverting to their more wild traits. Supermarket broccoli is pretty bland, but a lot of older varieties of garden broccoli (like Calabrese) have some of that same mustardy/turnipy pungency as rapini and their wild cousins. If you over-winter kale in the garden, try the florets when they bolt in the spring. They are sweet and amazing.
Yummmm, I’ve become addicted to your nettle pasta and wild ramps (the latter of which I’ve managed to transplant to a wooded area of my garden and now enjoy them every spring!), now rapini! I didn’t even know that you could find these growing wild. What sort of habitats do they occupy? I would be grateful if you could describe the sorts of areas where I might look for these delectable little wild beasts?
It’s just the unopened buds of the wild mustards and radishes. Garden rapini is the same thing with domestic varieties. Some have been bred to have bigger and more flower buds, however.
This looks fantastic. I would LOVE a taste of that wild stuff!
Hank, sounds great but I’m confused. Is there actually a “wild rapini” in NorCal or is there just the unopened flower tops of wild mustard (and wild radish?)?