There’s little dispute that including vegetables in our diets does indeed improve our overall health and supplies our bodies with valuable nutrients to function properly and perform at our best. To ensure that we are receiving a full range of these nutrients we need to be mindful that we work to vary our diets. Often, we can get in a rut, eating the same few veggies, week in and week out. This can happen because certain foods, including vegetables, are familiar and we are comfortable with them, knowing what to expect in taste and preparation. However, never shaking things up can lead to deficiencies in essential nutrients. To keep on track it’s best to add new foods, especially fresh vegetables, into our eating repertoire.
A vegetable that can add variety and bump up our nutritional profile is broccoli rabe or raab (both pronounced broccoli rob).
While this vegetable sounds like broccoli’s little brother, this leafy green delight is more closely related to the turnip. But don’t worry; broccoli and broccoli rabe hangout together at the mustard family reunion, as they are both in the Brassicaceae family of plants (aka mustard plants). With roots traced back to China and the Mediterranean region, broccoli rabe is still a popular dish in Italian societies and is gaining some momentum in the United States and some areas in Canada.
So, what makes this little-known vegetable so special? Besides the fact that it also answers to the names Rapini, Broccoletto, or simply rabe or raab, it is simple to prepare and grow and can bump up the nutritional value of your next meal.
Broccoli Rabe Benefits:
Taking a look at what rabe can offer you nutritionally, we can see that a 1 cup serving (40g) of raw rabe is approximately 9 calories, providing 1 g of protein, carbohydrates, and fiber, with 0 sugars and fats. What it also offers us is vitamin K, A, C, E, and folate. Rabe can also be looked at as source for potassium, phosphorus, calcium, copper, and magnesium, with a little iron and zinc to offer as well. Rabe also contains phytochemicals, which have been shown can help prevent cell damage and therefore help prevent cancer.
Growing Broccoli Rabe:
To grow this cruciferous green wonder is relatively simple and easy. Rabe is a cool weather, fast growing plant that can be ready to pick in about 40-70 days depending on the variety. It can be planted in early spring or late summer (to harvest in the fall). For those go getters, seeds can be started (indoors only) 6-8 weeks prior to the latest expected frost date in your region.
To grow well, rabe shoots like to be planted about 6 inches apart in soil that is within the 60-65 degree temperature range, with a neutral pH (~7). Full sun is what this plant prefers but can handle a little shade. If planting in a garden with other vegetables note that bean varieties may not mesh well with rabe. However, rabe does play nice with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, root vegetables, and even spinach. As with any plant, rabe needs to be watered, just do so moderately and evenly.
Most gardeners experience six legged creature invaders that like to enjoy the vegetables and fruits as much as we do. Insects such as the diamondback moth caterpillar and aphids enjoy rabe as well, but can be controlled without harmful chemicals.
One method to thwart the moth is to cover the plants at night with a thin bedsheet and therefore the moths cannot get to them. Also, inviting natural predators, such as the ladybug that will eat the aphid, can help control unwanted insect populations. By planting decorative plants such as marigolds, more beneficial insects will visit your garden and help reduce those insects that can eat up your rabe.
Something else to consider with rabe, or any vegetable or fruit, is that its nutrient profile is only as good as the soil it is grown in. If the soil is depleted the plant may not grow well or be able to provide the nutrients we are expecting. Treating the soil kind and appropriately is the best way to ensure you have a healthy and bountiful crop. Rotating your garden crops is one way to do this. Just be sure when rotating rabe, don’t have it follow cabbage, or really any other Brassicaceae family member, as disease and pests of the Brassicaceae family can build up.
Also good to know is that rabe is a proficient user of nitrogen and therefore proper fertilization is usually necessary. If you are going to fertilize choose to go the organic route. Some of the best soil add-ins are organic manures and composts. Keeping it all organic insures your plants, and therefore you, won’t be taking in any unwanted and harmful chemicals.
Preparing Broccoli Rabe:
So now that you have successfully grown some rabe, or found it in your local supermarket, what do you with it? When it comes to rabe, typically only the leaves are consumed and the stems are discarded. Due to the fact that rabe can have a bit of a pungent flavor it is best to cook rabe before eating. An easy and tasty way to prepare rabe is simply by sautéing it.
Heat about 3-4 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan and then add a few cloves of garlic (smashed and chopped) and sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Cook until fragrant and then add in your bunch of rabe, with a little salt and pepper. Sauté the rabe until slightly wilted, yet still a vibrant green (2-3 minutes). The amounts of the ingredients can be varied, just base it on your own personal tastes.
Simple, easy, fast, and very delicious!
If you prefer to get a little fancy with it, you can add rabe to your favorite frittata or vegetable soup recipes. If you find rabe is too bitter, even with cooking it, just blanch or boil the rabe for a minute or two before sautéing or adding to your other recipes.
Whether this is the first time you have heard of broccoli rabe or it’s an old family favorite, I hope you will add it to your next meal and into your garden. This little green powerhouse is unique, flavorful, nutritious, and a pleasing addition to any meal or backyard garden.
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