A simple pasta showcase for bitter greens
As a child, I never understood bitter vegetables. Maybe it has something to do with our developing taste buds, or maybe it’s that we’re simply not subjected to enough bitter flavors in our youth. Whatever the case may be, as a child, whenever my family would eat radicchio, escarole, or broccoli rabe, I would cringe and turn up my nose. In fact, it wasn’t until I was working in a restaurant, in my late twenties, that I truly developed a taste for bitter greens — and it was this dish, Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage, that turned my head.
It is a simple preparation, made as most Italian foods are, with the best fresh ingredients, cooked in a style that does not rob them of their flavor or unique characteristics. It’s a dish that seduces your palate with contrasting flavors that somehow come together to please the palate. It showcases its spicy, bitter flavors against a butter and wine sauce. Add to that a bit of salty pecorino over the pasta, and you have perfection in simplicity. Download Recipe
As for the wine, this dish pairs best with crisp whites, due to the bitterness of the greens and light nature of the sauce. However, due to its spicy character and earthy roots, you can also get away with Italian reds that lean toward a balance of acidity, such as a Barbera. I chose a wine a little off the beaten path from the north-eastern tip of Italy, in a region named Valle d’Aosta. The wines from this region hail from high elevations, as the area is literally surrounded by the Alps, which give them the exact balance of structure and acidity that I crave for this pairing.
The 2006 Torrette was stunning in the glass, with a deep vibrant red color and a nose of ginger cookie, violets, cracked pepper, and red fruit. On the palate, I found soft raspberry flavors that were juicy yet turned slightly bitter toward the finish and left me with a flavor of toasty rue. This wine was wonderfully refreshing against the orecchiette and accentuated the dish’s rich and spicy characteristics.
Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage
1 bunch of broccoli rabe, washed with stems trimmed olive oil, as needed
1 ½ pound sausage, a mix of hot and sweet according to preference and sliced into bite-size pieces1 pound of orecchiette¼ tsp hot pepper flakes 1 shallot, fine dice½ cup white wine, preferably Italian4 tbls butter, cubed½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese salt and pepper to taste
Tip: My recipe will tell you to cut the sausage into bite-size pieces. However, another method that delivers excellent results is to peel the casing from the sausage and crumble it into bite-size pieces.
1) Bring two large pots of seasoned water to a boil — one for the pasta and one for the broccoli rabe. Prepare an ice bath in a bowl on the side.
2) Add the broccoli rabe to the boiling seasoned water for 3 to 4 minutes or until nearly cooked and vibrant green. Now, remove the broccoli rabe from the pot (do not pour out the water) and place it into the ice bath. Allow it to cool for one minute, then drain and set to the side. Reserve one cup of the cooking water for later in the recipe.
3) In a large sauté pan over medium flame, add enough light olive oil to barely cover the bottom of the pan. Allow the oil to heat and add the sausage. Cook the sausage and once it has browned on the first side, turn to the other side to continue cooking.
4) At this time you can also add the pasta to the water set aside to boil the pasta and set your timer for one minute short of the recommended cooking time.
5) Once the sausage has browned on both sides, add the red pepper flakes and the shallots. Lower the heat to medium-low, and allow them to sweat for 1 to 2 minutes.
6) Raise the heat back to medium and add the wine. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen up any bits of the sausage that have stuck to the bottom. When the wine has been reduced by half, add the cup of reserved cooking water and the broccoli rabe to the pot. Continue to cook and reduce the sauce for 1 to 2 minutes, then turn off the flame and add the butter, stirring lightly to combine.
7) The pasta should be done around this time. Strain it, toss it with extra virgin olive oil and return it to the empty pot. Sprinkle with half of the grated Pecorino Romano cheese and stir. Now pour the entire contents of the saucepan over the pasta and turn the flame to low. Stir lightly for one minute to bring the entire contents of the pot together. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as needed.
8) Plate and serve with a sprinkle of Pecorino Romano over each plate.