"I'm not a big fan of broccoli rabe," Vicky told me when I brought some into the office to sauté for this classic Italian side dish.
"The versions you're eating probably aren't overcooked enough," I said. This is something I learned many years ago when I was working in a Tuscan restaurant in New York City. We'd sauté the broccoli rabe in olive oil with garlic and chili flakes, and on busy nights, we'd get really big pans of it going to keep up with the demand. I'd sometimes sneak tastes, and I realized that the longer the rabe sat in the pan, getting heated and reheated with each wave of orders that came in, the better it got, its bitter flavor mellowing and its sometimes-fibrous stalks completely yielding to softness. All the rabe we served was great, but the customers who got plates from the last bits out of each skillet were extra lucky.
We tend to have a thing against overcooking vegetables in American cuisine today (after decades of severely overcooking everything, to the point of mush), but, as the Italian kitchen has taught me over and over, there really is a place for overcooked vegetables at the table, at least sometimes. And this preparation of broccoli rabe is one great example.*
Simply sautéing the rabe from raw can take a while, so, to speed the process up, I break the cooking into two steps: first blanching, then sautéing. Unlike most recipes that call for blanching, in which you want to pull the vegetables out at just the right time and dunk them in an ice bath to stop the cooking, this dish doesn't really require that: You're going to be cooking the rabe quite a bit more later anyway, so nailing the doneness isn't critical. Still, I prefer not to blanch for too long, since the water will eventually sap the rabe of extra flavor and send it down the drain.
As soon as the rabe has lost its crisp bite and softened in the water, it's all set to go into the skillet—which I have at the ready, having already lightly sautéed the garlic in oil until golden, and given the chili flakes about 30 seconds or so to infuse into the oil as well. (You can do this while the blanching water is coming to a boil, then remove the skillet from the heat until the rabe is cooked.)
In goes the rabe, which I sauté for as long as I have patience—like I said, it just gets better. If I want food on the table quickly, which is often, that might mean I sauté it for 10 minutes or so. (Just make sure that the garlic and chilies are mixed into the rabe very well—if they settle at the bottom without moving, they may burn.)
If I have some extra time, I might give it a good sauté for about the same amount of time, then move it to very low heat and let it keep going, giving it a toss and a stir every few minutes until it's dinnertime. Cook it long enough and it'll lose its vibrant green color, but, as I've said, in this case, that kind of long cooking isn't a bad thing at all.
That's about it, really. Serve it alongside some roasted chicken or a nice thick pork chop. It won't be too bitter or fibrous at all.