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Penne with rapini and chèvre

jason

I love rapini, the bitter Italian turnip green sometimes called broccoli rabe. Hiromi compares it to nanohana, a similarly bitter green of the rapeseed plant that’s easier to find in Japan. Both are members of the big brassica family, and, as the “rap” in each word suggests, they’re closely enough related that one could easily be confused for the other.

But in spite of my affection for this vegetable, I’m the first to admit that, thanks to its bitterness, rapini is a tricky vegetable to work with. A few months ago, I made the mistake of trying to put together a stew-like preparation with lentils and briefly blanched rapini. The combination was so overwhelmingly astringent that nothing could save it, including some biscuits that I thought would provide enough contrast to balance out the greens. I made it for a party, in prodigious quantity, so it was kind of embarrassing. Even though many people did their best to eat a few bites, I knew it took more than a little effort to tolerate.

Rapini, aka broccoli rabe or friarielli

I know Italians often soften the bitterness by cooking this vegetable with some fatty sausage, but as a vegetarian, I needed to find some other option. I thought some soft cheese might do the trick.

First I cooked some shallots in a serious dose of good Vermont butter.

Cooking shallots in plenty of butter

I chopped the rapini and, near the end of the pasta’s cooking time, tossed it into the pan. Like most mustard relatives, the longer you cook this green, the more pungent it becomes, so it’s important to avoid cooking it too long.

Chopping rapini

I added the greens to the pan and tossed them around a bit with some Spanish paprika. Over the last year or so, I’ve developed an incredible weakness for Spanish paprika, thanks to its smoky aroma and deep flavor. It adds just the right kind of complexity to stand up to the assertive greens. No salsiccia required.

Working in the chevre

I worked in a healthy quantity of soft chèvre after the rabe was nicely coated with the butter and slightly wilted.Tossing the pasta with the rapini and cheese

I didn’t bother to wait until the chèvre melted before tossing the ingredients with the pasta. While I stirred everything together, the cheese and everything else developed into a much more uniform sauce. With just a few seconds to go, I threw in a few halved tomatoes. After a few shakes in the pan and some seasoning adjustments, I called it done.

Penne with rapini in chevre sauce, served

The result? Just what we were after. The bitter greens still held their own, but the chèvre and the pasta provided enough contrast that it was no struggle to enjoy the dish. The smoked paprika brought everything together, and contributed a really irresistable aroma. The penne itself I could take or leave; I would probably have been happier with a ridged version (penne rigate), but I used what I had in the larder. Some fresh fettuccini might be even better.

I’m convinced that rapini and chèvre belong together. I’m tempted to do a sort of white pizza with a chèvre and garlic base and a scattering of blanched rapini, served with some crushed dried chilies. Maybe a sort of chawanmushi-style savory custard would work. I’m pretty sure a simple omelet or frittata would turn out nicely, too.

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Shimeji-dill pilaf with corn and little tomatoes

jason

As a child I was under the unfortunate impression that rice pilaf was something that came from a box. The first “real” pilafs I tried were usually bland affairs mostly involving overcooked frozen vegetables.

I never developed a great affinity for the pilaf, so I’m not predisposed to the same kind of nostalgia I might have for, say, mac & cheese or lasagna. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say it usually sounds too boring for me to even think of cooking.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A heavy hand with fresh herbs and a good mix of can work wonders for the humble pilaf.

One recent evening, Hiromi was feeling a bit of bread overload, so she asked for something built on rice. Most of what we had on hand was more suitable for Western rather than Japanese treatment, and I didn’t want to let any ingredients go to waste, so I reached deep into my arsenal of improvisations and decided to break out our casserole dish.

After washing the rice, I sort of toast it in the pan with a little butter before adding liquid. This does wonders to keep the dish reasonably moist, and it certainly adds a nice flavor, too.

Mixing ingredients before final heat

I like to parboil the rice in seasoned vegetable stock in my pressure cooker before combining it with the main ingredients. Then I finish the pilaf off by allowing it to “rest” in relatively gently heated oven, usually 350-375F, for about 10-15 minutes. This allows the rice to develop a reasonably fluffy texture without overcooking all the vegetable ingredients.

I precooked the shimeji a bit so that they wouldn’t dry out while in the oven. I just gave them a quick sauté with butter and shallots, letting them brown a tiny bit.DSC_1511

I mixed the partially cooked rice with the cooked mushrooms, plenty of raw dill, raw tomatoes, and a handful of frozen corn. I did zero planning on this dish, so it was all about what we had in the kitchen, so it’s a rather eclectic combination.

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The dill made the dish. I don’t think I would have bothered without a generous helping of fresh herbs… thyme, dill, rosemary, or oregano would have done the trick. Basil or mint could have worked in some circumstances, but mushrooms like earthier herbs.

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It’s probably best to serve this with something high in protein, like a lentil soup, but we had overdosed on beans that day thanks to a spicy soup at lunch, so I served the pilaf with a slightly more complicated than necessary vegetable gratin for a late evening dinner.

To prepare the gratin, I took some more shallots, rehydrated sundried tomatoes, basil and pine nuts, and sauteed them together with a little salt. I then mixed this together with romanesco broccoli.DSC_1521

I can’t quite remember if I blanched or roasted the romanesco before finishing it off in the oven. But either way would work, with the caveat that over-roasting would produce an unpleasantly dry result, and blanching would really only need about a minute of boiling before refreshing in ice-cold water, since the dish gets additional cooking when the cheese is melted.

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I was getting a little impatient that night, and most of the ingredients were already hot and cooked, so when the cheese didn’t have quite the right golden-brown texture I flipped the oven into broiler mode and slighly charred the vegetable.

Baked romanesco broccoli with mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, and pine nuts

Cheap mozzarella works well for this, so I just broke out a big log of mozz we often have on hand from Trader Joe’s. If I repeated this dish, I would rather have used some oil-marinated sundried tomatoes rather than simply rehydrated ones, since they did get a bit dry, but overall, the dish was comforting and rounded out a simple weeknight dinner nicely.

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