Just writing the words “orecchiette with broccoli rabe sauce” makes me happy. I’m kind of a simple creature, really. That’s all I need. Well, that and having a plate of the actual food in front of me, because I am a hungry girl with a love for the delicious.
This brings me to orecchiette, which I love for many reasons. Let me count the ways. First, I love it for its name, which means “little ears” in Italian. They are round, disc-like things that have depressions in the middle, kind of like ears do. Adorbs! Next, I love them because they are dense. You don’t need to completely load them down with cheeses and fats to give orecchiette some heft because they’re made with semolina. That’s a serious, no-nonsense flour, so they’re hearty and kind of chewy and you really know you’re digging in and eating something. Finally, I love orecchiette because people are seemingly compelled to pair it with broccoli rabe, and I am down with anything that puts rapini in my trough. And yes, broccoli rabe = rapini = these words are interchangeable. I didn’t necessarily know that at first, and I’m still trying to figure out where broccolini fits into the broccoli family, but I digress.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see a store in Lewisburg and its environs that sells orecchiette, so my feasting upon it has largely been confined to restaurants and/or bags brought back from forays into shops in nearby metro areas. But who needs that? I have thumbs, I can cook. I’ll make my own! Do note, please: if you’re interested in making a pasta with broccoli rabe sauce but have no interest in making orecchiette, I understand. Skip this part, scroll down to where I talk about the super-easy sauce which comes together in about twenty minutes, and feel free to use a store-bought pasta. Just make sure you choose something hearty, like whole-wheat rotini. If you are interested in making the orecchiette as well, then read on!
First, mix your dry ingredients. Orecchiette seems to favor a 2:1 ratio for its flour. I used a cup of semolina flour and subsequently, I used a half-cup of AP flour. Mix the flours together with some salt (for this recipe, no more than a quarter-teaspoon) and have a half-cup of warm-ish water handy, though you may not use all of it. Also, keep a baking tray dusted with semolina flour nearby to serve as a landing pad for your shaped pasta.
Put in about half the water and start kneading, and add more water in small increments until you get a ball of dough that is cohesive and elastic. You can put it in a stand mixer if you have one with a good dough hook, but I don’t. I just did it by hand. It only took about five minutes of work to get it from a gnarly pile of mess…
To beautiful elastic ball of dough.
When researching orecchiette, I read a bunch of food blogs offering conflicting advice about how to proceed. Let it rest, don’t let it rest. Wrap it in plastic, don’t wrap it. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what to do, but here’s the thing: it’s never really a bad idea to let your dough rest, though it doesn’t seem that it would be criminal if you didn’t rest it. I wanted to tend to some onions I had cooking on the stove so I took the opportunity to let it rest, and covered it with the bowl I originally measured out the flour in so my dough didn’t dry out in the open air. If you need to park your dough for a little while, this is a perfect time to do so though if you’re going to let sit for more than a half an hour I’d at least lay down some plastic under it. When you’re ready, cut your dough into eight pieces and roll those eight pieces out into doughy dowels about 18 inches long. Ish.
Cut them into pieces about an inch long and then? Squish them into shape. Again, in my research I read blogs that advised wrapping your dough around a spoon, or allowing the friction from the back of a dull knife to cause the pasta to curl, but then I thought, if I were some traditional Puglian nonna trying to make dinner, would I worry about ever-so-carefully fussing with the back of a knife? Or would I use the most basic tools available to me and have at them with my thumbs?
Thumbs won. I stuck my thumb in the middle of one piece of dough and shaped it with the other hand. Voila, little indented pastas. And they’re supposed to be rustic, so if they don’t look perfect, that’s fine.
Again, there are different schools of thought regarding what to do with your pasta now. I’ve seen sites that advise you to let the shaped pasta sit at least one hour before cooking, I’ve seen sites that say you can use it right away. I let mine sit–in the open, uncovered, just as you see it here–for the twenty minutes or so that it took me to prepare the sauce, and they didn’t dry out much and cooked super-super fast once I got them in boiling water. So. Once they’re at this point you can walk away and take care of other business.
For us, that other business is sauce. This is pretty straightforward, and adapted from Mario Batali. First, cut onions and garlic. I used a TON of garlic because (regular readers, you know this) I am a junkie for garlic and am even more so when it comes to bitter greens, but of course you don’t have to use five cloves of garlic if you think that’s excessive. This would also be a good time to get your pasta water started, so it’s boiling and ready by the time you want it. If you’re using dried pasta, start the water before you cut a single bit of onion since you need to let the water boil and then let the pasta cook for eight or ten minutes before it’s ready to use.
Let the onions and garlic saute in a very large pan at a medium heat with a dose of crushed red pepper to taste (I like the spicy) for five or six minutes, until they’re nice and soft and taking on that beautiful oniony-golden hue. Add in your broccoli rabe, which has been rinsed, had the tough bottom ends of the stems removed, and roughly chopped.
Once that’s in the pan, grate a little fresh nutmeg over it (yes, really, it just makes it warm and homey) and toss in some salt and pepper. This should saute for about five minutes before you add the tomatoes.
p.s. Is your water boiling yet?
Allow the tomatoes to cook in with the rapini for two or three minutes and put your fresh orecchiette in to boil. Give it a stir and then watch it; within a minute or so it should start to float and when that happens, it’s ready to drain. Reserve a ladle full of pasta water and drain your noodles. Check the sauce. If it seems kind of watery and needs to tighten up, add in some of your ladle of starchy pasta water, give it a stir, and then add your drained noodles to your pan. Let them cook together for a minute or two. Check for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper–I hit mine with a pretty sizeable amount of fresh-ground black pepper. Make a chiffonade from ten or so fresh mint leaves, stir this in and remove from heat. Give it a little kiss from some pecorino-romano and serve. We ate ours with Parmesan-roasted acorn squash and bread with Fiery Onion Relish.
Fact: I can’t wait to eat the leftovers, either.