With only a few weeks of spring left, and fewer rainclouds on the horizon, we bid farewell to the wonderful Northwest crop of rapini. It's a little strange to be writing about food that we won't see again for another year, but this year it has caught my attention how much misunderstanding there is about this vegetable. I've seen articles published in newspapers and on blogs, as well as a few very respectable books, which all fail to identify what this mysterious vegetable actually is.
Here in the Northwest, we have a shorter growing season than California and many of the southern states. Spring comes very late up here. We don't see the first local sweet peas or favas until it's nearly summer. Instead, we have rapini. Down in California, they don't see a lot of rapini. They don't have to wait for it. By Groundhog Day, they can be planting full fields of crops for spring. Up north, it doesn't matter if you plant your spring crops in February or early March. They aren't going to grow, because there just isn't enough sunlight! If you do plant, the growth is so slow that the crops you plant a month later will actually catch up to them.
So what can you grow? Brassicas that have been harvested throughout the winter are a great source of food from Groundhog Day until the Vernal Equinox. Brussels sprouts and kale, cabbages, collards and turnips; most of the vegetables in the family have a large root stalk. After they are harvested, the plant will continue to send energy up through the root stalk, creating budding sprouts that we call rapini.
These shoots come at different times, depending on the plant. Brussels sprouts have an early sweetness, while some of the cabbages and collards are the last to develop good flavor. They have varying colors and leaf shapes, also depending on the plant. There are deep red shoots from red kales and cabbages, pale green from brussels and turnips, and dark green from cavolo nero and other dark kales. (The photo above shows three different varieties). These crops are enormously popular in Italian and Chinese cuisine, which places a higher value on bitter flavors.
Don't be mistaken into thinking that these are some mysterious cousin of the turnip, or a variety of gai-lan or broccolini. They are all brassica shoots (There is one exception you may see in the grocery store, and that is broccolini. It is actually a cross between broccoli and chinese gai-lan. It resembles rapini, but is not cultivated in the same way). Whatever variety you may buy, they will all have small florets with different leaf shapes surrounding the tips, and thin stalks. The quality can usually be judged by the tenderness at the base of the stalk. Shoots that have been cut too late or long ago will be fibrous and woody instead of tender and bittersweet. I'll be looking forward to them again next year.