‘Eat it,’ my mother insisted, ‘broccoli rabe is good for you. It is full of iron and vitamins and it will help you go to the bathroom.’ Words any child with sense would immediately cringe at; almost as bad as ‘eat your liver’ because you won’t be able to leave the table until you do. As a child and teenager, I recoiled from eating broccoli rabe because it was bitter, smelly, soggy and overcooked. Then one day, when I was in my twenties, attending the Feast of San Gennaro, which is held annually on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, downtown Manhattan, I was drawn to a sausage stand by the aroma of freshly grilled sausage, fried peppers and onions. They had the usual hot sausage and sweet sausage, plus a third kind, which I had never seen before. The cook told me it was made by mixing chopped broccoli rabe with pork and spices before stuffing it into the sausage casing. Being adventurous, I tried one and was pleasantly surprised at how the spiciness and sweetness of the sausage meat provided a perfect counterpoint to the bitterness of the broccoli rabe.
As time passed, I began to notice in the pasta section of the menus at several Italian restaurants, Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage. It had probably been there all along, but I am sure that my brain never noticed it because of my earlier aversion to the vegetable. Remembering the delicious sausage from the Feast, I worked up the courage to finally order it from one of those restaurants. The combination of chopped broccoli rabe and sliced sausage was the perfect accompaniment to the al dente pasta. As I mentioned earlier in Everybody has a Story, trying to re-create a dish that was first consumed in a restaurant is challenging and fun. This was one of them. I first tried making it with sliced sausage, then with cubes of cooked sausage, but neither of these seemed to appeal to me. After several variations I finally hit upon the best method to my taste, which is removing the sausage meat from the casing, blanching, chopping and then sautéing the broccoli rabe in garlic, adding some hot pepper and white wine, and mixing it all together.
I hope that you, your family and friends enjoy this recipe as much as I and mine do. Mother was right as usual, broccoli rabe is good for you, it is full of iron and vitamins, and when mixed together with sausage and pasta, it is irresistible. So, all of you mothers and fathers out there, this is a good way to get your child to eat his or her veggies! Mangia!
My mother also made a delicious one dish meal that she called Pasta Fazool. Actually many Italian-Americans refer to this macaroni and bean dish similarly. But it wasn’t until I spent some time in Italy that I found out that over there, particularly in Northern Italy, which has a totally different dialect from that of Southern Italy, it is called Pasta e Fagioli. Please read Pasta Fagioli, or Pasta Fazool? to find out more about this controversy.