[Photographs: Sasha Marx]
Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, is a picturesque region known for its prolific wine and olive oil production. It’s also a historically poor area. This combination of agricultural abundance and economic scarcity is what produced the Pugliese cucina povera, the “poor cuisine” that, out of necessity, relies on local, inexpensive ingredients and culinary know-how that’s been passed down through the generations. Orecchiette con le cime di rapa, or orecchiette with turnip greens, is a regional treasure that’s emblematic of this traditional cooking style.
Cime di rapa are the leafy green tops and leaves of the plant that we know as broccoli rabe in the States. In the past, when farmers had to sell the lion’s share of their produce to wealthier regions, they would cook up the less-desirable discards, such as those turnip tops, to make their own meals. All three parts of the broccoli rabe (also known as rapini) plant —the stems, leaves, and florets—are edible. While the stems are delicious prepared in any number of ways (roasted, sautéed, or blended into a punchy, green purée), their toothsome texture is not desirable for this dish. So, for this recipe we separate the tender florets and leaves from the stalks, which can be reserved for another use. The cime di rapa are lightly blanched in boiling water which will later be used for cooking the pasta. Giving the rabe a head start like this softens it, and helps it turn into a velvety sauce later in the cooking process.
Orecchiette are a Pugliese specialty, where the “little ears” are always handmade with fresh semolina-water dough (in southern Italy, eggs were historically too expensive to be used for pasta-making). In Bari, the capital of the region, this history really comes alive when you walk down via dell’Arco Basso, commonly known as the “strada delle orecchiette” (orecchiette street, which gives Sesame Street a run for its money in my book), with women making pasta outdoors. They muscle through dough, rolling snakes of it on century-old wooden boards, then cut it and shape each individual piece of pasta over their thumbs before tossing the orecchiette onto screens to air-dry in the hot city sun. They’ve been making orecchiette the same way for generations, sometimes cutting the dough with hundred-year-old knives table knives, as one woman showed me. The process is both simple and profoundly nuanced.
While you need to use fresh pasta to make a truly traditional orecchiette con le cime di rapa, don’t fret: You can make something almost as delicious with dried orecchiette. You just need to give the sauce a little extra love. The sauce starts with garlic, anchovies, and chiles which are cooked in a generous amount of olive oil until the anchovies have dissolved. Some of the rabe cooking water gets added to the skillet, and the mixture is brought to a boil while being swirled and stirred to form an emulsion. The cooked greens and pasta are added to the mix along with some extra, now-starchy cooking water. A high-heat finish involving plenty of tossing and stirring produces a creamy sauce with tender rabe that coats the pasta, with the bitterness of the greens playing off the peppery olive oil and savory anchovies.
There’s one thing you will never see on a plate of orecchiette con le cime di rapa: grated cheese. Aged cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and the like) are another example of luxury ingredients that don’t feature prominently in the cucina povera tradition. Instead, you’ll find pastas garnished with toasted pangrattato, bread crumbs made from leftover stale bread cooked in olive oil. It’s the perfect crunchy topping for this iconic Pugliese dish.
Why It Works
- Blanching the broccoli rabe leaves and florets quickly in the pasta cooking water before adding them to the skillet with the orecchiette to finish cooking ensures tenderness and keeps their vibrant color.
- Anchovies add savory depth to the dish without making it taste fishy.
- Toasting well-seasoned breadcrumbs with garlic and plenty of olive oil makes them a worthy stand-in for grated cheese, which was historically too expensive to use in cucina povera.
What’s New On Serious Eats
- For the Breadcrumbs:
- 4 ounces (115g) rustic bread, cut into 3/4- to 1-inch pieces
- 1 garlic clove (5g), minced
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- For the Pasta:
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 4 anchovy fillets (5g)
- 3 garlic cloves (15g), minced
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 12 ounces (340g) dried orecchiette
- 1 pound (450g) broccoli rabe (rapini), leaves and florets picked from stalks, stalks discarded or reserved for another use (see note)
For the Toasted Breadcrumbs: If using fresh or lightly stale bread, adjust oven rack to middle position, and preheat oven to 325°F (165°C). (If using fully stale and dried bread, skip baking step.) Arrange bread in single layer on rimmed baking sheet, and bake until completely dried, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven, and allow to cool to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Transfer bread to food processor bowl (set aside but don’t clean rimmed baking sheet), and pulse until reduced to small crumbs, taking care not to over-process into a fine powder, 8 to 10 pulses.
Combine breadcrumbs, garlic, and 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil in a large skillet, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring and tossing occasionally, until crisp and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer toasted breadcrumbs to reserved rimmed baking sheet, spread into an even layer, and set aside to cool to room temperature. Wipe out skillet.
For the Pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, combine 1/4 cup (60ml) oil, anchovies, and garlic in now-empty skillet. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring and breaking up anchovies occasionally with a wooden spoon, until anchovies have dissolved and garlic has softened and is just beginning to turn lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and continue to cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove skillet from heat.
Add broccoli rabe to boiling water and cook, stirring frequently to keep submerged, until floret stems are barely tender and leaves have softened, about 1 minute. Using a spider skimmer, fine-mesh strainer, or large slotted spoon, drain rabe while keeping boiling water in the pot; transfer rabe to a plate and set aside.
Add orecchiette to boiling water and cook, stirring frequently for first 30 seconds to prevent pasta from sticking. Once pasta has cooked for 5 minutes, transfer 1 cup (240ml) of pasta cooking water to skillet; continue cooking pasta. Return skillet to high heat and bring to a boil, swirling pan and stirring constantly until cooking water emulsifies with olive oil-anchovy mixture, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low while pasta finishes cooking to prevent liquid from over-reducing.
Meanwhile, continue cooking pasta until it is softened on the exterior, but well shy of al dente and still uncooked in the center (about 3 minutes less than the package directions). Using a spider skimmer, transfer pasta to skillet along with reserved broccoli rabe. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 2 cups (475ml) pasta cooking water.
Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened and coats noodles, 2 to 3 minutes, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed. At this point, the sauce should just pool around the edges of the pan; it will continue to tighten up in the time it takes to plate and serve, so make sure it’s a little looser than the ideal serving consistency. Season with salt to taste.
Remove from heat, divide pasta between individual serving bowls, drizzle generously with olive oil, sprinkle with breadcrumbs, and serve right away.
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