la rapa 'nfucata: suffocated turnip tops (SIC) or wilted rapini
It is perhaps the oddest part of my job as the owner of a cooking school in Italy that I’m asked so often for the recipes for the food of the Salento by those that have never even been to the school (departing students receive all of our recipes, regardless of the time of the year of their visit).
I say ‘odd’ because so many dishes don’t really have recipes.
Take le rape ‘nfucate as an example: write down the recipe on the page, and the three lines that it takes to explain the dish seem wimpy, banal, even insulting to the reader.
It’s mostly because the same factors that make our readers want these recipes also render the recipes almost impossible to duplicate.
Anyone who has ever been to our little school has heard me fixate on differences between The New World and The Old World, and how little either place fully grasps the other’s attitude to food and wine (A wincingly, oversimplied version of the differences could be summed up like this: The New World contemplating the Old perceives (wrongly) that it just needs access to the recipes in order to have the Old World’s food: The Old World looking at the New, thinks that there is so little there in the food over there).
Le rape ‘nfucate are a perfect example of this concept.
First of all, you have to find and understand the vegetable, which isn’t easy. Northern European English-speakers often refer to the vegetable as ‘Turnip tops’. To the Germans, they are brassica rapa sylvestris, the last part often causing amusement that I’m the one teaching the dish. To North Americans, they are either ‘broccoli raab’, or ‘rapini’. All of these, are of course, approximations. (In the Salento they are always plural, a tense I avoided as the subject of this essay, as the plural appears to be a very different word in English).
Here is what an example of what a recipe would look like to make this dish here in Lecce.
Trim away the fibery bits, which are the longer stalks (expect to lose half of the overall volume). Wash well, soak in water. Brown a smashed garlic clove in a large pot. Drain rape (but not too well), toss in pot with garlic and olive oil, cover, steam until they wilt. Toss in a preserved chili pepper, or a dried one, and a shot of vinegar. Eat hot, or more often, at room temperature. To drink, negroamaro.
What’s not included in the recipe are all of the cultural fixations of The New World with regards to food: how to make the vegetable available all year long, which large supermarkets carry it, how long can you keep it once you buy it, how long in advance can you cook it, does it have to be so wasteful, etc. It doesn’t take much to see that the reality is that the dish speaks more of a lifestyle- the daily shopping, of eating locally, in season, simple foods, with no temptation to show the cook’s savvy by the guilding of the lilly, whatsoever.
But come to Lecce and you’ll find us each winter, gathered around the table, bent over large plates of wilted, heady greens, with thick wedges of hand-torn bread placed directly on the table. No one will be talking about famous chefs, or food TV or wines measured out in 100 point scales. There will just be people and food, the first united through the second, eating slowly, near the source, together, as if it were the most natural thing in the entire world.
To our calendar
To our recent article in the LA Times