“…And is this the upshot of your experiment?” – Rappaccini’s Daughter, Nathaniel Hawthorn
Yesterday I spent a good chunk of time poring through books – cook books, gardening tomes, collections of fairy tales – trying to find a direct correlation between Rapunzel and rapini. We’ve started using the latter on a few of the spring dishes and part of my workaday routine is blanching and shocking the greens, a task I find impossible to complete without eating at least 30 of the raw, leafy stalks, and then another 10 of the post-blanch lot.
The flavor of rapini, aka broccoli rabe, isn’t the tame chlorophyll-heavy comfort-food flavor of broccoli. Rather, rapini has a bitterness to it, a hint of wild, craggy slopes where only lavender and stunted pines can compete with the greens, and the only mammals are feral goats. At least, that’s what it tastes like to me. I crave the imaginary cheese made from the imaginary milk of these particular goats, because the calcium-rich greenery also has a hint of sweetness, and a genuine robustness that would come through the cheese extremely well. Ah, the terroir of cheese. The imaginary bees pollinating these lonely, rock-strewn fields of rapini and lavender would produce a honey that would pair exceptionally well with the imaginary cheese.
As you may recall, Rapunzel’s mother spent her confinement in a room overlooking a beautiful garden of “rapunzeln”, which the gravid woman craved in huge quantities, and her husband, not wishing to develop a sty because he denied a pregnant woman her wish, crept over the wall in the dead of night and robbed their neighbor’s garden. Unfortunately, their neighbor was a witch and all kinds of trouble come from stealing a witch’s vegetables. But I think Rapunzel’s mother craved calcium and folic acid and that’s why she kept fainting and carrying on.
Anyway, there I was, on the sofa, coffee close at hand, going through the indices of 40 different books trying to find a strand that would tie the tale to the kale – from McGee I learned that rapini belongs to the sprawling Brassica family (Brassica rapa), which, in addition to kale and rabe, includes cabbage, collards, cauliflower, mustard, arugula, radishes, rutabagas, turnips and more. What a family reunion! Delicate Watercress chatting with plump little Brussels Sprout, Rutabaga wondering whether he was in the right place – so many leaves! – and there’s Horseradish, sitting alone in the corner. Not entirely unlike other family reunions I’ve been to, actually.
Had I not been taking a break from the Internet the search would have yielded results a bit faster. As it was, I did track down a book version of the fairy tale in which “rapunzeln” was also called “lamb’s lettuce.” Back to McGee – lamb’s lettuce is our friend mâche, also known as “corn salad.” Not misleading at all. Imagine asking a grocer for some corn salad. She would point you directly to the deli case.
“No, no, I mean lamb’s lettuce.”
“Ok, how about some mâche?”
A smile, a nod toward the stacks of plastic clamshells containing a living bunch of the fragile greens. But at $26/lb, the point is moot.
Today I decided to fire up the ol’ Dell and take a turn around the interrooms. No more dilly-dallying around with “books” and “libraries.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, my search yielded mixed results. There is a plant called “rapunzeln” (Campanula rapunculus) that has edible roots and leaves, with a slight radishy flavor. Aha! So, while not a Brassica, Campanula rapunculus may be some far-flung relative, uninvited to the Brassica reunion. Perhaps a long-held grudge exists between the two families. The Campanula family is all about bell-shaped blue flowers, which I mention for two reasons: one is that, while we don’t eat a lot of blue food, and I'm not sure a pregnant woman would have craved rapunzeln, a garden filled with blue flowers must have been very beautiful to look down upon; and, two, upon following up the “lamb’s lettuce” lead, I discovered that corn salad nee mâche nee lamb’s lettuce is part of the Valerian family (Valerianella locusta), which is notable for its small BRIGHT BLUE FLOWERS. Aha!
So maybe the Brother’s Grimm took an even older cautionary tale which simply mentioned a garden filled with blue flowers and then they, being Northern Germans and therefore accustomed to seeing fields of Rapunzeln flowers nodding in the breezes, nibbled by sheep (whose milk would produce a cheese with slight almond notes, a bit of a grass flavor and a clean, slate-like finish), simply plugged in the name of the local blue flower. (Here in Seattle, our common Bluebell is also known as “Squill.” And I don’t care how pretty she is: no prince would ever stand at the base of a tower built by a witch and call up to the princess, “Squill, Squill, let down your hair.”)
I happen to have a copy of Die Märchen der Brüder Grimm here with me and the garden is described thusly:
…der voll der schönsten Blumen and Kräuter stand; er war aber von einer hohen Mauer umgeben, und niemand wagte hineinzugehen, weil er einer Zauberin gehörte, die große Macht hatte und von aller Welt gefürchtet ward.
They go on to talk about the schönsten Rapunzeln that was bepflanzen all over the place, but there doesn’t seem to be any mention of blue flowers. So where does this lamb’s lettuce business come from? A faulty online translation page that mistook Macht for mâche? That doesn’t make any sense. Mâche hails from France, where it grows close to the ground on the edges of fields browsed by dewy-eyed French cows (who would produce milk that would make a soft, slightly sweet cheese, hints of strawberry in the nose and finish).
There may be more digging to be done in the Grimm garden, given the fact that we’re talking about plants that were cultivated in the 17th Century and have since been swept up in the bewildering swirl of taxonomy, but for now I think the obvious answer is probably the correct one: Rapunzel was named for rapunzeln, and lamb’s lettuce is naught but a herring in sheep’s clothing.
All of which has absolutely nothing to do with rapini, which I am craving powerfully enough to sneak into work on a day off just so I can eat a few leafy stalks. Perhaps I’ll just go to the store instead. Should you find yourself with a bunch of rapini, treat it as you would broccoli, or kale, or watercress. Rapini would not appreciate being treated like a Rutabaga. I would quickly sauté it with olive oil, minced garlic (watch the heat of the oil – garlic can burn ever so quickly), and a handful of currants that had been soaking in either balsamic or sherry vinegar. Finish with a knob of butter, a good pinch of salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. If it were me, I’d also put salt-roasted walnuts on the cooked greens, and maybe a sprinkle of feta cheese. Enjoy with friends, a hunk of crusty bread, wine and stories.