I have seen a new bait and switch tactic going on in food circles these days. When I order broccoli rabe at some restaurants, I’m not getting the familiar leafy vegetable of my upbringing, but a stalky substitute called broccolini. In some magazines, I’ve seen articles on recipes for broccoli rabe with pictures of broccolini. Is there a difference between broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, and broccolini? Yes!
Broccoli rabe, or rapini, is in the same family as other well-known vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower. It most resembles turnip greens or mustard greens that are popular in the southern United States. In fact, turnips are in the same species as broccoli rabe, Brassica rapa. Broccoli rabe, like turnip and mustard greens, has a bitter flavor that dissipates when prepared properly.
We know broccoli rabe, or rapini, by its Italian name, as it is most associated with Italian cuisine, particularly southern Italian cuisine, although other cultures prepare it and it now grows all over the world.
The most common way to prepare it is simply blanching it, then sauteeing it in olive oil, and serving it dressed with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. In the southeastern heel of Italy, Puglia, there is a popular pasta dish called orecchiette with broccoli rabe or rapini.
Italian immigrants of 100 years ago had grown broccoli rabe in their gardens, and the Andy Boy company in California is credited with commercially bringing broccoli rabe, or rapini, to the United States. Their website lists all the attributes of rapini and has a plethora of recipes. In the first decade of the 1900s, Sicilian immigrant Andrea D’Arrigo came to the United States, learned English, and earned engineering degrees. His brother, Stefano, joined him and founded Andy Boy produce company. In 1926, they invented a way to ship produce across the country in refrigerated cars. The first vegetable shipped across country was broccoli, grown here from seeds they brought over from Italy.
Broccolini is a hybrid of broccoli and gai lan, a vegetable popular in Chinese cuisine, also known as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale. It was developed by a Japanese seed company, Sakata Seed Inc., that was looking for ways to extend the growing season of broccoli. After seven years, it was developed and brought to the U.S. market in 1993. Sakata trademarked the name Asparation because its stalks resembled asparagus. Mann Packing Co. in California is the grower who trademarked the name broccolini. (The COO’s wife, Debbi Nucci, came up with the name.) Mann’s website has product information and recipes for broccolini. Mann’s was founded in 1939 by H.W. “Cy” Mann, a Stanford graduate, and became known for its broccoli.
Both rapini and broccolini end in -ini, which is an Italian suffix meaning “little,” and are often used interchangeably in recipes and restaurants. But they are different. Broccoli rabe is more leafy while broccolini has longer stalks with more broccoli heads. They also differ in taste with broccolini being more mild, and broccoli rabe being more earthy. They are both nutritionally sound. From a culinary standpoint, they can be used interchangeably in recipes. But from a traditional standpoint, broccoli rabe is the vegetable eaten for years in Italy and brought to the United States by Italian immigrants. If a restaurant purports to sell broccoli rabe, it shouldn’t be switching it with broccolini, and vice versa. It comes down to personal preference whether or not one chooses broccolini or rapini, but it should be a choice, not the result of a convenient switcheroo.
–Dina Di Maio