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May 11, 2009 at 10:41 AM

What’s in a name: “cabbage rabe”

A recent trip to the farmers market had Eater Jackson Holtz stymied:

“We bought some wonderful, fresh `cabbage rabe’ at the Ballard Farmers Market last week. At least, that’s what the vendor called it. Here’s the rub. I can’t find anything in any of my extensive food library that talks about any rabe other than broccoli rabe which seems, perhaps, a whole other vegetable. What we bought are clearly the immature — and tasty — tops of plants. Is the farmer making this stuff up? Are they called a different name?”

When I showed up at the Edmonds farmers market for its seasonal debut a week ago Saturday, I posed the question to Nate O’Neil, owner of Frogs Song Farm on Skagit County’s Fir Island. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, he’d just sold his last bouquet of “cabbage rabe.” While that’s not what he calls it (more on that in a bit) Nate knew exactly what I was talking about. His wife, Shannon Dignum, sold me several bunches ($2/each) this weekend.

Frogs Song Farm’s Shannon Dignum and her cabbage-shoot bouquets

What Shannon’s holding (and what Jackson and I bought) are the sprouted tops of cabbage plants. Though, said Nate, he and other local farmers are also selling similar bouquets of sprouted kale, broccoli, mustard or his favorite, collards — among other brassicas. What we’re buying is the by-product of last year’s crops: the shoots of vegetables that had gone to seed and sprouted naturally over the winter. “For this time of the year,” he said, “it’s one of the most nutrient-rich things you can eat.”

Organically grown red cabbage-shoots: So good, and so good for you!

Depending on the seed-of-origin, each vegetable has a different flavor. “Red cabbage has more of a cabbage flavor, mustard is hotter, black kale tastes more like asparagus,” Nate says. “And once they flower-out and turn yellow, I think they’re even better because they’re sweeter.” When customers see yellowed vegetables, “they think it’s bloomed-out and not food.” And that, says farmer Nate, is a mistake. As is stripping the leaves and blossoms from the thin stems, sauteeing the greens with olive oil and garlic and throwing away those nutrient-packed stems (as I did). “Cook the whole thing,” advises Nate, till the stems are firm but not overcooked. But first chop off the root end, as you would asparagus. “It’s all edible.”

So, what’s it called?

“I call it broccolini,” he admits, though he’s aware that Broccolini is a registered trademark of Mann’s, a produce packing company, and goes by many other names including “Aspiration” and “baby broccoli” (also inaccurate, since it’s a hybrid cross between broccoli and gai lan — or Chinese kale).

“People have to have a name for everything,” he says, noting his Skagit Gold potatoes are “bred off a Yukon line, but it’s not a Yukon” — though it’s often easier to sell it as such. Whatever it’s called, it’s becoming a trendy vegetable. “Times are changing,” says Nate. “I tried to sell this stuff 12 years ago, but nobody liked it. Now it’s a big wholesale thing” — with chefs and restaurants finally giving these hearty shoots their due. Ditto for intrepid home-cooks like Jackson Holtz, who are taking this seasonal bounty home from their local farmers markets and calling it “wonderful.”

Comments | More in | Topics: Produce/Farmers Markets

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