The joys of rapini are fleeting, and require the most delicate touch. A gardener accustomed to long-haul plants like perennials and shrubs must shift paradigms in the vegetable garden, where most of the stars are annuals. If the perennial gardener is like a novelist trying to write short stories, rapini is haiku.
I started rapini in my veggie garden last spring in total ignorance, the way I like to start new things. (There is a certain amount of bliss in ignorance. I simply cannot follow a beaten path.) I’d never eaten rapini, or even heard of it before becoming a gardener. Rapini pops up everywhere in gardening books and seed catalogues and recipes. People praise it so highly; I had to know what I was missing.
I started seeds in early spring, a modest tidy row of ten or twelve seeds. They sprouted, they grew, and I waited for the little broccoli-like heads to form. I was really expecting tiny broccoli. I also planned to harvest the whole batch at once for an Italian stir fry. The rapini did not comply.
My research said the plants get six to eight inches tall, and that heads must be harvested just before flowering. Every time I noticed an incredibly small head on a plant on my way to work in the morning, it had burst completely into flower by the time I came home. I don’t think I caught a pre-flowering head of rapini even once all spring. So I tried to salvage the plants by harvesting leaves for stir fry. They were horrible and tough. The stems were especially stringy. The leaves were bitter. Did I learn from this experience? No.
I repeatedly harvested leaves and tried to cook them. I tried higher heat and longer cooking times, with more and more disappointing results. Salad with these tough old bitter leaves was out of the question. I gave up on rapini.
Fortunately, there’s a time in the late fall when tender plants have outlived their edibility, and space opens up for a few weeks before the frost comes. Unused real estate in the veggie garden is a valuable commodity in my little backyard. I dug through my seed packets and found cilantro, dill, and rapini. Only a mad fool would plant dill more than once in their lifetime since it will seed uncontrollably all over the yard forever, and cilantro without tomatoes seems like a mean joke to play on oneself just before winter comes.
Opting for rapini made sense after a little more research revealed that Italians plant it in the fall to overwinter for a spring harvest. But what is the hardiness zone in Italy, and how does it compare to Michigan? Whatever, I was tired of research so I planted the little fuckers.
I crowded the seeds, I barely covered them with dirt, and I did not thin out the seedlings according to the package instructions when they sprang up. And so a perky batch of rapini leaves about three inches tall was ready for salad in a few weeks, and then about a week later when little heads poked up I cut them down immediately. Such a delectable experience; yes they have a slight bitter edge, which I demand of any good green-leaved thing. They also have a tangy edge, almost a lemony flavor. Harvested young, the leaves are still sweet and the stems still tender. The lovely thing about rapini is that it has all the flavors needed for a complete dish contained in just one plant. Sauté it very quickly in olive oil and a dash of salt, and you have sweet, sour, salty, and bitter in perfect balance. The trick is all in the timing.
Anyone who’s ever made love knows that timing is everything. When the rapini is ready, you must harvest, menu plan be damned. If the plants get over five inches tall, start new seeds. Just let go. Asparagus is a marathon runner, but rapini sprints. Let it be what it was born to be: a fleeting pleasure, a one night stand, a moment never memorialized in scrapbooks or on grocery store shelves. Rapini is a little floozy. Catch her in her glorious moment of fecundity and youth, and save your commitment for the oaks and the roses.
Rapini is Lolita. She does move trippingly on the tongue, before and after harvest, especially if you roll the “R.” Give her the spotlight before she blooms, and throw her away before she grows old. Use her, or she will be of no good use at all. Take her, have her, and do so quickly; the joys of rapini are fleeting, and require the most delicate touch.