Mamma Zu here in Richmond. After watching enormous platters of the garlic and olive oil-laden stuff go out to nearly all of the tables surrounding us, the aroma alone was enough to give it a try. And, holy crap was it good. Tender and a bit bitter with just the right amount of crunch on the stalky ends, the rabe was literally smothered in freshly minced garlic. A little squeeze of lemon and a few spins of the black pepper mill and I was in heaven.
It wasn't long before I sought out to recreate Mamma's version at home. I quickly learned that blanching the stalks in rapidly boiling, generously salted water and then shocking them in a water bath was key to an expertly tender stalk that still maintains just a smidgen of snap when it hits the teeth. I also learned that this step cannot be skipped (i.e. just throw it all in the pan with some olive oil) since the beauty of broccoli rabe is its inherent bitterness, yet at the same time this naturally pungent flavor can easily overwhelm the entire dish. Blanching the stalks for just a minute or two is enough to temper the bitter flavor and also get a jump start the cooking process.
So, while I clearly had the blanching part down, for the life of me, I couldn't get my version to taste like Mamma's no matter how many various incarnations I tried when it came to the second step (sauteeing the rabe in aromatics). The beauty of Mamma's version is that it's quite generous on all ingredients: gobs of good quality olive oil, a ridiculous amount of garlic, sea salt city and more than a dash of crushed red pepper. Perhaps a splash of white wine as well? Only Mamma knows. When I attempted this combination in true Mamma Zu form, what I got was a gloppy, over seasoned, oil-soaked mess. Thank god I had some Billy Bread to salvage the dish and soak up my saucy nightmare.
For any of you home cooks seeking a simple, flavorful, Italian restaurant-inspired dish that will most definitely give you some rocking good dragon breath, try this on for size:
Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Garlic and Parmesan
1 pound broccoli rabe
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3-4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Accompaniment: Sliced lemon wedges
Slice off the last 1-inch or so from the broccoli rabe stems and discard. Fill a 6 quart pot with water and a 1/2 tablespoon of salt, and bring up to a boil. Drop broccoli rabe into rapidly boiling water and cook for 2 minutes, or until barely tender. Remove broccoli rabe to a large bowl filled with ice water and submerge. Let fully cool, then drain well.
Preheat a large sauté pan. Add olive oil. Next, add garlic and crushed red pepper. Saute for one minute, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add broccoli rabe and sauté until just heated through. Squeeze lemon juice over and sauté one more minute. Season generously with salt and pepper. Remove to a serving platter and sprinkle with grated cheese. Serve immediately with crusty bread for dipping.
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