A Hot Pasta for a Cold Day
The weather is changing in Martina Franca. While we’re not swimming in flood waters like the unfortunate residents of Venice, our skies are grey and the wind is whipping down our cavernous city streets, prompting a spontaneous show of woolly scarves and winter coats. There’s only one thing to do: make pasta.
In Italy, the pasta lexicon is vast and complicated for the uninitiated. Yet for the native born, pairing pasta shapes with appropriate sauces seems to be part of a broader genetic knowledge. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on it all, some regional nuance trips me up. I’ve come to rely on market vegetable merchants or my butcher to avoid serious missteps, so it is armed with this knowledge that I share the perfect pasta for weather like ours.
Orecchiette con Cima di Rape or Little Ears with Broccoli Rabe combines two Pugliese passions: hard, winter wheat pasta made by hand and seasonal bitter greens infused with extra virgin olive oil and a touch of hot red chile pepper. While making orecchiette in the traditional way at home is a topic for another day, the rest of this dish can be assembled in the time it takes to write about it, making it the perfect choice for a lightening quick dinner that fairly bursts with earthy flavor.
Broccoli rabe, aka broccoletti, cime di rape, rapini and friarielli, only looks similar to broccoli, but is actually part of the brassica rapa family (think turnips and mustard greens). Happily you can find it in supermarkets, but take a little time to search for an organic source (or grow your own!). Broccoli rabe has a bitter, sometimes pungent, nutty flavor that I have come to crave, providing a perfect foil for the empty pasta canvas you’ll pair with it. Its leaves, stalks, and flowers are all edible, which makes prepping it for cooking a breeze. You’ll want to thoroughly wash all the dirt and sand out of your broccoli rabe and remove any yellow leaves before cooking.
Italians like to give charming names to their pasta shapes and these little inverted cap-shaped shells called orecchiette are no exception. Orecchiette, or little ears, are made traditionally by hand in Puglia just about every day. The dough is rolled into a thin rope and then cut into small pieces, which are individually dragged on a board, typically with a knife, and then turned out with the thumb. It’s this last maneuver that creates the characteristic roughness on the outside of the pasta along with the tiny bowl that causes sauce to cling to each piece. When you watch practiced hands turn these little ears out, the whole process seems simple. Let me just say that my initial efforts resulted in one ragged offering for every 20 of my neighbor’s bounty. Happily, there are some great prepared orecchiette available in the U.S. now, which will ensure that you actually complete this dish in time for dinner.
Orecchiette con Cima di Rape or Little Ears with Broccoli Rabe
1 lb. packaged orecchiette (try to find a great brand like Granoro, Rustichella d’Abruzzo or Latini)
½ cup top quality extra virgin olive oil (preferably organic)
2 garlic cloves, sliced
6 anchovy fillets, boned and coarsely chopped
1 small dried hot red chile pepper, coarsely chopped, or ½ tsp. red pepper flakes
1 lb. (2 bunches) broccoli rabe
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.
In the meantime, clean the broccoli rabe, discarding any yellow, old or excessively tough outer leaves and the very thickest part of the stems. Coarsely chop the leaves and thinner stems. Separate the thicker parts of the stems and slice them on the diagonal into thin pieces. Set aside.
Put the olive oil in a sauté pan big enough to hold the finished dish. Heat over a medium flame and add the garlic slices, being very careful not to let them brown. When they begin to soften and turn a very light brown, add the anchovies. Use a wooden spoon or the back of a spatula to mash the anchovies, melting them into the oil. When they disappear, add the hot red pepper. Stir to mix and set aside, keeping the mixture warm. Note: make this dish vegetarian by omitting the anchovies. Make it vegan by omitting both anchovies and cheese.
When the water is boiling, add salt to taste, the dried pasta and the thick parts of the broccoli rabe stems. After about three minutes, add the rest of the chopped broccoli rabe. There is some variation on total cooking time, so start tasting the pasta after about 12-13 minutes. The whole process shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes.
Drain the pasta and broccoli rabe and add to the olive oil mixture in the sauté pan. Cook briefly over a medium flame just long enough to infuse the pasta mixture with the flavorsome, garlicky olive oil sauce. Taste and add salt if necessary (remember that the anchovies are salty) and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
Serve with cacioricotta if you can find it. It’s a lovely slightly aged sheep and goat milk cheese from Puglia that is perfect for grating into pasta since it melts so beautifully into the sauce. Parmigiano or granda padano is great, too, but less traditional.
Serves 4 generously.
Note: Here’s the best pasta tip of all time: just before you drain the pasta, remove about a cup of the pasta water and reserve. When you are tossing the pasta with its sauce, add a little of this water if the pasta seems at all dry. This starchy pasta waters works a little like heavy cream, causing the sauce to cling to the pasta. Later, if for some unknown reason you have leftover pasta, store it with the remainder of this water for successful reheating the next day. At our house, I’m afraid the pasta doesn’t last past breakfast in the unlikely event we don’t finish it the night before.