October is National Pasta Month and many would agree that pasta is Italy’s preeminent contribution to the culinary world. Italian food scholar Oretta Zanini De Vita writes, “To me, this heritage is an Italian gift to gastronomic culture on a par with what the Florentine Renaissance gave to art.” (Professor De Vita also dispels the widely held belief that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy. In fact, evidence of pasta exists in Sicily around 800 AD, nearly 500 years prior to Marco Polo’s return from China.)
Italy’s regional pasta tradition mirrors the peninsula’s socioeconomic history. The prosperous North is home to the delicate egg-rich “tajarin” of Piemonte and the rich meat-filled “tortellini” of Bologna while the struggling South nourished its peasants with “orecchiette” in Puglia and “sagne” in Abruzzo, made with only flour and water. While prosperous Northern Italians had the means to enjoy pasta as a “primo” between the appetizer and the meat or fish course, as a teenager, my father used to devour half a kilo of pasta for lunch every day because that’s all his family could afford. (I often wonder how many pounds of pasta I’ll need to cook for my own family when my three boys are teenagers.)
Years ago, my husband and I dined at the acclaimed and utterly fabulous Cibreo in Florence. Lauded for its creative spin on Tuscan cooking, the restaurant is also known for the chef’s intentional omission of pasta from the menu. Although we thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated our dining experience, we couldn’t help feeling as if something was missing among the elegant courses. After all, what is a truly great Italian meal without even a small dish of pasta?
Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa
Recipe by Majella Home Cooking ©
Fresh orecchiette – Puglia’s famous little ear-shaped pasta – have a toothsome texture and unique hybrid flavor between dried and fresh pasta (they’re made from semolina, water and salt – eggs, once considered a luxury, are not used in traditional pasta-making in Puglia). The most classic condimento – and my personal favorite – is broccoli rabe (also known as rapini or cima di rapa in Italian), garlic and anchovies and topped with toasted breadcrumbs (cheese was another luxury for Southern Italian peasants).
For the orecchiette:
- 1 cup warm water
- 1½ teaspoons of sea salt
- 2½ cups semolina flour (Durum wheat flour)
- All-purpose flour for the work surface
For the condimento:
- 2 lbs broccoli rabe, stems trimmed, and cut into 2-inch pieces (leaves and florets)
- 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing at the end
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
- 3-6 salt-packed anchovies (depending on how strong an anchovy flavor you’d like)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Toasted breadcrumbs or grated cheese for serving
MAKE ORECCHIETTE: Stir together water and salt in a large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer) until the salt has dissolved. Add semolina in a stream, beating with an electric mixer at medium speed until a stiff dough forms, about two minutes. Transfer dough to a lightly-floured (with all-purpose flour) work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Cover with a large overturned bowl for at least 30 minutes. Line 4 trays with dry kitchen towels (not terry cloth) dusted with semolina. With a knife, divide dough into 10 pieces and leaving the remainder of the dough covered, roll one piece of dough into a long rope about ¾ inch thick. Cut the rope into ¼ inch pieces. Dust your thumb with some flour and press down on each piece of dough, pushing away from you and twisting (flicking) your thumb slightly to form an indented curled shape like a little ear. Transfer formed orecchiette to the lined trays and repeat with remaining dough. Allow the orecchiette to dry for at least 30 minutes before cooking or freezing. (They freeze extremely well. Place the trays directly in the freezer and transfer the orecchiette to ziploc bags.)
PREPARE ANCHOVIES: Hold the anchovies under cold running water and gently rub off the salt with your fingers. Pat them thoroughly dry with paper towels and transfer them to a cutting board (preferably not a wooden board so that the smell won’t permeate the wood). Using the tip of a sharp paring knife, make a small incision along the bottom side and run your knife along the length of the anchovy. Gently peel back the top portion of the anchovy to reveal the backbone on the bottom portion. With the tip of your knife, gently remove the backbone and cut off the tail. Finely chop the anchovy fillets or mash them to a paste in a mortar and pestle.
If the flavor of salt-packed anchovies is too strong for you, you can soak them in milk for a few hours in the refrigerator after rinsing them to remove the salt. Rinse the anchovies again to remove the milk before filleting them.
MAKE CONDIMENTO: Set olive oil over medium-low heat in a wide skillet until shimmering. Add the cloves of garlic, stirring occasionally until the garlic is browned on all sides. Remove the garlic from the oil and discard or reserve for another use. Add the chopped anchovies to the oil, lower the heat and, stirring frequently, allow them to cook until they seem as if they’ve dissolved or become part of the oil. Turn off the heat and add the crushed red pepper, if you’re using it. Reserve until you’re ready to dress the pasta.
COOK AND DRESS THE ORECCHIETTE: Place a large pot of salted water to boil. When the water has reached an active boil, shake the excess flour from the orecchiette in a colander, add the pasta to the pot and return to a boil. (Meanwhile, set the skillet containing the anchovies over medium-low heat.) With a ladle, reserve a cup of the pasta cooking water (even if you don’t use it all). After the pasta has cooked for 4 minutes, add the broccoli rabe to the pasta pot and allow them to cook for one minute. Drain the pasta and greens and add them to the skillet that contains the anchovies, along with about ½ cup of the pasta cooking water (or more if it appears too dry). Toss well and allow it to simmer for about minute. Turn off the heat and transfer to a large serving bowl. Drizzle with some more olive oil and serve with grated cheese or toasted breadcrumbs. Buon appetito!