I cook with many flavor combinations that are commonly accepted to pair well together. Strawberries and rhubarb. Goat cheese and beets. Brussels sprouts and bacon. These flavor matches are tried and true; however it's always fun and exciting to come up with new, unexpected flavor combinations. A couple of weeks ago my dear friend Angelique and I went to Black Mountain Wine House, one of our favorite local wine bars, and ordered an interesting dish that was comprised of asparagus wrapped in sopressata with a poached egg, arugula and grapes. Not an unusual pairing of ingredients, until you get to the grapes, that is. Not, surprisingly (since their menu of small plates is carefully prepared and well-executed), this dish was great. The flavors were quite balanced and the grapes added a nice contrast and sweetness to an otherwise earthy dish. Plus, I was inspired.
So the next day I picked up a big bag of organic red grapes and got to experimenting. One of the most successful dishes I came up with was broccoli rabe with bacon and red grapes. The slightly bitter broccoli rabe was perfectly, and surprisingly, balanced by the subtle sweetness of the grapes and smokiness of the bacon. It may be unconventional, but trust me, the flavor combo WORKS.
In case you're not entirely comfortable shopping for and preparing broccoli rabe, I've included a few tips so you are well prepared to do both:
Picking out broccoli rabe:
- Broccoli rabe is at its seasonal peak, and therefore most tender, in the spring. Look for it at farmers markets.
- Leaves should be fresh and vibrant, avoid those that are yellow or wilted.
- Stems should be thin and crisp; the thicker the stems the less tender and more bitter the rabe my be.
- The buds (or "flourets") should be tightly compact.
- If the buds are starting to sprout little yellow flowers, you may want to choose another bunch, as pretty as those little flowers are (a blooming broccoli rabe signifies a more "mature" plant that may be a little more fibrous and bitter). But, the yellow flowers are totally edible, I've eaten them and enjoyed them anyway.
Cooking broccoli rabe:
- Cut off the bottom 2" or so of the stems. They are tough and fibrous.
- Always blanch broccoli rabe in salted boiling water (the salt helps to maintain the bright green color and it seasons the vegetable) for 1 to 2 minutes, tops. The broccoli should be not be fully cooked after a blanch.
- Drain the broccoli rabe and run under cold water immediately to stop the cooking process.
- Ring out excess water from the broccoli using a paper towel. This is important. Excess water will cause the broccoli rabe to steam in the pan, rather than saute, and may result in a watery final product.
Once you have the buying and basic cooking tips down, you can do many, many fun things with broccoli rabe. One of my favorites is to simply saute the blanched broccoli rabe with olive oil, garlic and a little crushed red pepper; straightforward but so delicious. Or you can try it in a pasta dish (like in this NY Times recipe for Spaghetti with Broccoli Rabe, Toasted Garlic and Bread Crumbs), or served over polenta (as Marcus Samuelsson does in his Lemony Asparagus and Broccoli Rabe recipe).
Either way, try it out, and while you're at it, through some grapes and crispy bacon in their too.
Broccoli Rabe with Red Grapes and Bacon
1/4 lb bacon, diced
1 large bunch broccoli rabe
1 Tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 c. seedless red grapes, halved
squeeze of lemon juice
salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Slice off bottom 2" of broccoli rabe stems. Blanch broccoli rabe in boiling water for 1-2 minutes (broccoli should not be fully cooked). Drain and run under cold water immediately to stop the cooking process. Squeeze broccoli rabe to remove excess water.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat and cook bacon until fat is rendered and bacon is crispy. Remove bacon using a slotted spot and place on a paper towel lined plate. Add garlic and crushed red pepper to pan and cook for 30 seconds, or until garlic is fragrant. Add broccoli rabe and red grapes and toss. Cook for 4 more minutes, or until grapes are heated and softened slightly. Stir in crisped bacon, a squeeze of lemon juice (a little acid brightens really up the flavors) and salt and pepper to taste.