This is a very traditional dish from the Puglia region (the heel of the boot) in Italy. But, I put my own spin on it to make it vegan.
Orecchiette, literally “little ears,” is the most popular pasta of Puglia. In the Internet age, Orecchiette has been made famous by the “pasta grannies” of Bari, a city in Puglia, where the ladies sit outside and make thousands of Orecchiette every day.
Puglia was one of the poorest regions of Italy, so eggs were rarely used when making pasta. Instead, Orecchiette’s ingredients were only durum wheat (semolina), water, and salt.
Because of the shape of the Orecchiette (round with an indentation in the middle), it is ideal for holding tomato sauce. But, the most famous way to enjoy Orecchiette is with broccoli rabe (rapini).
How this recipe is different
You’ll often see Orecchiette and Broccoli Rabe recipes with spicy sausage. The sausage is a relatively new addition as most Pugliesi couldn’t afford to have meat on a regular basis.
Also, most traditional recipes for Orecchiette and Broccoli Rabe call for anchovies. Puglia is a peninsula and fishing was a common occupation for the people there, so the plentiful anchovies were often used to add flavor and protein.
To make this recipe vegan, there is no sausage or anchovy.
Perhaps most importantly, you’ll see other recipes calling for you to boil the broccoli rabe, often with the pasta. The blanching of the rapini is done to remove some of the bitterness from the greens. I’ve found that I really like the bitter flavor of the broccoli rabe, so I sauté it.
You’ll see grated cheese on many recipes. This isn’t traditional, but as Puglia has become more wealthy, ingredients like sausage and cheese are often added to dishes.
Finally, some recipes call for “turnip tops” rather than broccoli rabe. I haven’t been able to track down the origin of turnip tops, but I think it may be an old translation gone wrong. Perhaps at a time before broccoli rabe was common in English speaking countries, the closest they could get was “turnip tops.” I’ve never seen actual turnip greens used in this dish.
1 lb. Orecchiette pasta (dried or fresh)
2 large bunches broccoli rabe (rapini), about 1 1/2 lbs.
5 cloves garlic (less, if desired)
Red pepper flakes
Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil and cook pasta until al dente (usually about 1 minute less than cooking time listed on the box of dry pasta)
Wash and pat dry the broccoli rabe and remove yellow leaves. Cut off and discard the tough end of the stems, but not too much. Then, chop the broccoli rabe. The stems should be cut into small pieces, but the leaves can be chopped into larger pieces.
Chop 5 cloves of garlic (less, if desired).
Heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil on medium/low heat in a sauté pan. Add the garlic and a pinch of salt. Stir and gently cook for 2 minutes. Add the broccoli rabe (you may need to do this in batches), along with another pinch of salt and red pepper flakes.
Cook the rabe mixture until the leaves are wilted down, at least 3-5 minutes. Set aside.
Drain the pasta, reserving 2 cups of the starchy pasta water.
Combine the pasta, rabe mixture, and a 1/3 cup of the pasta water and cook over med/low heat to combine. Add more water to keep the dish moist, but not wet.
Spoon into bowls and serve, adding more red pepper flakes, if desired.