A quick pasta dish with vegetables that you can whip up in less an 30 minutes, Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe makes for a fine meatless dinner, with cheese and fruit for dessert. It’s pretty typical of the kind of thing we like to eat in our house on a weeknight when there’s not much time to make dinner. The pasta is orecchiette or “little ears”, a pasta typical of Puglia, the region of Italy that my grandpa Fariello came from. Little disks of pasta made from durum wheat and water are pressed with the thumb so they come out concave, giving them the appearance of little ears—well, at least, if you apply some imagination.
- 400g (14 oz) orecchiette (see Notes)
- 1 bunch of broccoli rabe (about 400g/14 oz), roughly chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, slightly crushed and peeled
- 1-2 dried chili peppers, or a pinch of red pepper flakes
- 2-3 anchovy fillets (optional)
- Olive oil
Boil the orecchiette and broccoli rabe together in well salted boiling water.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, lightly sauté the garlic, chili pepper and anchovy fillets in olive oil. Don’t allow the garlic or the red pepper to brown too much or it will turn bitter. (If using the red pepper flakes, add them only a few moments before you’re done with the sauté, as they burn very quickly.) Turn off the heat.
When the orecchiette and broccoli rabe are done, transfer them and the broccoli rabe with a slotted spoon into the seasoned oil. (For a more ‘refined’ dish, you can remove the garlic and chili pepper but I never bother.) Simmer everything together, mixing as you go, until the pasta and broccoli rabe are well seasoned by the oil. The broccoli rabe should have more or less disintegrated by now into a kind of ‘sauce’. (This is definitely not nouvelle cuisine!) Taste for seasoning and add salt to taste, if need be.
Serve your orecchiette with broccoli rabe piping hot, drizzling a bit more olive oil on top of each portion if you like. This is not a dish that calls for any kind of grated cheese.
Notes on Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe
Once a rarity, these days fresh orecchiette can be found at better supermarkets and many Italian food shops. They are, unfortunately, quite expensive as real ones have to be made by hand. You can find imported dried orecchiette, also quite expensive, but quite good if thoroughly cooked. You can also find what I could imitation orecchiette—basically regular pasta secca cut into a concave shape to look something like orecchiette. But I don’t bother with them; if you can’t find real orecchiette, or would rather not pay that much for pasta, I find it better to use another kind of short pasta that can hold the broccoli rabe, like rigatoni or conchiglie (shells). Or, for the ultimate experience, you can make your own; fellow blogger Michelle Capobianco of Majella Home Cooking just wrote a superb post on making orecchiette at home with great instructions.
Dried orecchiette and broccoli rabe take about the same time to cook, generally about 10 minutes or perhaps a bit more, depending on the thickness and age of the pasta. Freshly made orecchiette take less time, only about 5 minutes or so, so boil the broccoli rabe for 5 minutes or so before adding the pasta to the pot. If you have some extra time, some people like to boil the broccoli rabe separately, draining and adding it to the seasoned oil, then boiling the pasta in the same pot as the broccoli rabe. The water will lend more flavor to the pasta that way, and you can better control how well cooked your vegetable is. Personally, I find the difference in taste and texture is minimal, not enough to justify the extra time it takes.
You can use the same method for cooking orecchiette with broccoli rabe using cauliflower, in which case, add a little chopped parsley for color). They can also be sauced with ricotta cheese softened with a wooden spoon or a lightly cooked marinara-type tomato sauce into which a dab of ricotta is mixed at the last minute. I’ve also heard of (but never made) orecchiette with clams or mussels. Since orecchiette have recently become ‘chic’, you’ll also find all sorts of fancy recipes for orecchiette around with goat cheese and asparagus and such. Orecchiette are typically cucina povera and I find such extravagances absolutely absurd.
Post scriptum. By the way, broccoletti is the Roman word for broccoli rabe. Since I lived in Rome, that’s the word that always comes to mind, but in Puglia itself, orecchiette with broccoli rabe is orecchiette con cime di rape (literally ‘turnip tops’) and that’s the more common term among Italian-Americans as well.