The lines are becoming increasingly blurred in our household, 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 nary a distinction between national cuisines on the table.
The “authentic” produce used in a particular dish or cuisine has fallen by the wayside, 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 how well each community is faring, and access to fresh food is a major factor.
We’re lucky enough to farm on mineral-rich soil with an all-year-round growing season. It means the land sustains an abundance of variety, so we have a lot of different produce to experiment with – I’m considering renaming the farm Potager Sans Frontières, because we get to travel momentarily to unknown lands via tasting their vegetables.
I do think that most seasoned gardeners eventually go down this route – the challenge of growing an unfamiliar species or variety is too exciting not to dabble in. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t like the resulting vegetable/fruit and it goes to enriching the compost heap.
This season I’ve been finding clumps of rapini (aka broccoli rabe, friarielli, broccoletti) around the farm. They possibly came from a few stray seeds in the Sicilian Violeta cauliflower packet, or they’re a remnant of dormant seeds from last spring’s crop that germinated in the compost heap.
However it found its way back, I’m delighted to see the luscious clumps of iridescent green again. It’s very easy to distinguish between rapini and the other brassicas with larger heads; at this time of the year it throws out large, outstretched leaves of dark teal and some blushing of a deep magenta along the centre vein.
The rapini is confidently compact with large crenelated leaves that shield a minor floret bursting with yellow stars. They can be mistaken for wild mustards, especially when they are in flower, but a clear distinction is that they are not as spindly and their stalks are much more succulent.
Despite broccoli rabe’s misnamed reference to broccoli, it is actually a closer relative to the turnip. Like most brassicas it thrives in the cold – the colder the climate, the sweeter it is – thus in the mild winter of the NSW Northern Rivers our rapini has a pleasant bitterness to it. It contains high levels of sulforaphane and indoles, essential vitamins A, K and C, along with a good dose of folate, calcium and a higher fibre content than broccoli.
I’ve eaten it in pastas, pizzas, sautéed and in soups – mostly with Mediterranean flavours, doing little more than adding fats, garlic, salt and lemon to it. Lately I’ve been cooking it with green garlic that has shot up and is growing along side it, perfect companions in the soil and on the plate.
For seven dinners of the week, at least three or four are tinged with Asian-leaning tendencies – and so because the rapini is in its prime right now, I’ve adapted it to those cooking methods too.
My own mother was the queen of inventive cooking, she rearranged ingredients, swapping out holy basil for sweet basil in a stirfry, peas for pea eggplants 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 dressed with shoyu, mirin, saké and sesame) and in a jor phak kaard soup – perhaps one of my favourite soups of all time. Traditionally made with another brassica, yu choy – a flowering mustard not very dissimilar to rapini – it is a simple, classic soup from Northern Thailand that rarely gets a look in anywhere else. Should you find yourself like us here, with some wild cherry tomatoes growing like mad, confused that it is winter, pop it in.
Jor phak kaard
Makes 4 serves
250gr pork soft ribs/pork belly/pork back ribs, cut into bite-sized pieces
3 cups water
6 small red eschalots, cut into quarters
12 cloves garlic, peeled
16 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 lemongrass, cut into 10cm pieces and smashed with the butt of your knife
2 tbs shrimp paste
1 tsp sea salt
1 tbs best quality fish sauce
4 tbs tamarind concentrate
6 large long red chillies, freshly toasted in a wok
1kg of rapini, cut into 10cm length pieces
In a mortar and pestle pound garlic, eschallots, salt and shrimp paste to form a rough paste. Bring water to boil and add the pork, simmer for 12 minutes.
Add the paste, lemongrass, cherry tomatoes and tamarind concentrate.
Simmer for another five minutes and then add the rapini, and let this simmer for another five minutes, or until the greens are just tender but not completely soft and overcooked. Taste the soup and season accordingly. It may be salty enough for you as it is – if not, add the fish sauce.
Turn the heat off and add the toasted chillies, crushing them slightly with your hands to release the seeds into the soup.