The lines are getting blurrier in our home, but an anything goes attitude has served us well in these confusing times. Especially when it comes to food: dinner for breakfast, breakfast for dessert, and there is almost no distinction between national cuisines at the table.
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The “real” product used in a given dish or cuisine has been forgotten, and our eating habits are determined more by what is nearby, available, and in season. In this pandemic period, localism is proving to be key in the performance of each community, and access to fresh food is an important factor.
We are lucky to grow in mineral rich soil with a year round growing season. It means that the land is home to an abundance of variety, so we have many different products to experiment with. I am thinking of changing the name of the farm to Potager Sans Frontières, because we can momentarily travel to unknown lands trying their vegetables.
I think most experienced gardeners eventually take this route – the challenge of growing an unknown species or variety is too exciting not to dabble in. What is the worst that can happen? It doesn’t like the resulting vegetable/fruit and will enrich the compost pile.
This season I have been finding groups of rapini (also known as broccoli rabe, friarielli, broccoletti) around the farm. Possibly they came from a few loose seeds in the packet of Sicilian Violet cauliflower, or are a remnant of dormant seeds from last spring’s crop that germinated in the compost heap.
It found its way back though, I’m delighted to see the luscious clumps of iridescent green again. It is very easy to distinguish between rapini and the other brassicas with larger heads; at this time of year it throws up large, spreading leaves of dark bluish-green and some blush of deep magenta along the midrib.
Rapini is confidently compact with large, crenellated leaves sheltering a smaller yellow star-studded floret. They can be confused with wild mustards, especially when in flower, but a clear distinction is that they are not as spindly and their stems are much more succulent.
Despite broccoli rabe’s erroneous reference to broccoli, it is actually a closer relative of the turnip. Like most Brassicas, it thrives in the cold: the colder the climate, the sweeter it is; therefore, in the mild winter of the northern rivers of New South Wales, our rapini has a pleasant bitterness. It contains high levels of sulforaphane and indoles, essential vitamins A, K, and C, along with a healthy dose of folate, calcium, and a higher fiber content than broccoli.
Rapini in bloom ‘bursting with yellow stars’. Photograph: Angelafoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto
I’ve had it in pastas, pizzas, stir-fries, and soups, mostly with Mediterranean flavors, doing little more than adding fat, garlic, salt, and lemon. Lately I cook it with young garlic that has shot up and is growing next to it, perfect companions in the ground and on the plate.
For seven dinners a week, at least three or four are tinged with Asian-leaning trends, and because rapini is at its best right now, I’ve adapted it to those cooking methods, too.
My own mother was the queen of inventive cooking, rearranging ingredients, swapping holy basil for sweet basil in a stir-fry, peas for aubergine-and-peas in a curry. This was done out of necessity more than anything.
So the rapini has had my version of the Goma-ae treatment (steamed, strained, and garnished with shoyu, mirin, saké, and sesame) and in a jor phak kaard soup, perhaps one of my all-time favorite soups. Traditionally made with another brassica, yu choy, a blooming mustard not unlike rapini, is a simple, classic northern Thai soup rarely seen elsewhere. If you find yourself like us here, with some wild cherry tomatoes growing like crazy, confused that it’s winter, bring it in.
jor phak kaard
brands 4 portions
250gr soft spare ribs/pork belly/pork ribscut into small pieces
3 cups of water
6 small red shallotscut into quarters
12 garlic cloves, peeled
16 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 lemongrasscut into 10 cm pieces and flattened with the butt of your knife
2 tablespoons shrimp paste
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon of the best quality fish sauce
4 tablespoons of tamarind concentrate
6 large long red chiliesfreshly roasted in a wok
1 kg of rapinicut into pieces 10 cm long
In a mortar, crush the garlic, shallots, salt and shrimp paste until they form a rough paste. Bring the water to a boil and add the pork, simmer for 12 minutes.
Add the pasta, lemongrass, cherry tomatoes, and tamarind concentrate.
Simmer for another five minutes and then add the rapini, and let it simmer for another five minutes, or until the vegetables are tender but not completely soft and overcooked. Taste the soup and season accordingly. It may be salty enough for you as is; if not, add the fish sauce.
Turn off the heat and add the toasted chiles, mashing them lightly with your hands to release the seeds into the soup.