Chickpea and Gai Lan Spaghettini
There are the make-or-break substitutions that can either translate into culinary brilliance, or total disaster. Sometimes you realize you’re missing an ingredient, so you end up making a switch and hoping for the best. Other times, you have an ingredient, but you decide to take it in a different direction than what you’d normally do. So it was that I found myself looking at a refrigerator full of Chinese greens and seriously considering some pasta.
Last week I talked about how Chinese emigrants were often forced to adopt typically Western vegetables while trying to recreate the food they’d left behind. While ingredients like broccoli and carrots have now become a part of the Chinese repertoire, it’s all-too-rare that we think about going the other way. Chinese vegetables tend to evoke certain flavours and dishes in our minds, but we forget that it’s seldom the vegetable itself with a highly distinctive taste, and more often the sauces and spices. So when I picked up a bag of jade-green gai lan, I didn’t think of oyster sauce, soy sauce, or ginger. Instead, I began imagining rapini, garlic, and olive oil.
Now, gai lan is not rapini (aka broccoli raab/rabe), but the two have a lot in common. Both are slender-stemmed vegetables with a strong broccoli flavour, large leaves, small flower heads, and a somewhat bitter edge (more pronounced in rapini). Oddly enough, despite the similarity between broccoli rabe and gai lan, the former is actually extremely closely related to another Chinese green vegetable, yu choy sum. In any case, I’m not going to pretend I reinvented the wheel here or anything – I simply swapped one vegetable for another, with a rather minimal change in flavour. But still, it was fun – we forget sometimes that we’re only limited by our imaginations in the kitchen, and that ingredients can be a lot more versatile than they might appear at first. Now I could make this all over again with rapini (and I may, should the chance arrive), but I think using gai lan paid off in quite a few ways. First, as I’ve already mentioned, gai lan is less bitter than rapini, though it still has a mild bite. I love bitter foods (black coffee is basically my spirit animal), but I found the level of bitterness in this really nice, as it was noticeable without being overwhelming. Second, gai lan is a heck of a lot cheaper than rapini, at least where I live. Rapini still enjoys something of a gourmet/specialty status around here, while Chinese greens are… well, they’re about as cheap as the dirt they’re grown in. Obviously this might not be true where you live, but any respectable Chinese grocery store should stock gai lan at a very reasonable price. All in all, it meant that this entire meal was ridiculously inexpensive, even accounting for a good quality extra virgin olive oil (which is a must here – you’re going to taste the oil, so you don’t want something bland and middling).
Of course there’s a lot more going on here than just gai lan – the sun dried tomatoes and chickpeas are obviously key components of the dish, not to mention the basic-yet-vital flavours of garlic and shallots. The end result is a harmonious and hearty meal that embraces the gai lan without really focusing on it. In the end that was what I really wanted anyway – a meal that seemed like it was meant to be, and not simply an excuse to shoehorn an ingredient in where it wouldn’t normally be found. This is Italian food. Of course, I say that without much fear of reprimand. If you dare serve this to your Nonna (assuming you have a Nonna), I hope you’ll tell me how it goes. If she raises an eyebrow at you, just tell her it’s rapini.
The biggest key to success with this dish is very thinly slicing the gai lan stems. You could slice the stems into thin pieces, but the easiest and most visually appealing method is to use a vegetable peeler to shave the stems into long, thin slices.
If you don’t have gai lan, you could use rapini or broccolini in its place. If you want to use broccoli, I recommend preparing the stems in the same way and using only a little of the crown.
Use an olive oil you enjoy the taste of, as it will contribute quite a bit to the flavour of the final dish.
Aside from the cheese used as an optional garnish, this dish is entirely vegan. I personally think that the reggiano-parmigiano is the perfect way to finish the dish, but if you do want to keep it vegan, there are some good alternatives made from cashews and nutritional yeast. Check out this recipe for more information.
The pasta is the only wheat product in the meal, so you can substitute a non-wheat based pasta to make it gluten-free if you like.
The sauce can be served without pasta as a simple side. It would be excellent with a good, crusty bread.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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