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The Perfect Cooking Style For Delectable Brassicas

Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: If you’ve spent this apparently endless winter as I have, in the icy-cold, snow-raddled Northeastern U.S., you are by now, like me, longing for a bit of sunshine, a sprinkle of warm weather, a hint that spring is just around the next bend. But with yet another big snowstorm predicted to hit by midweek, I’m still counting on trustworthy brassicas to liven my table until the first asparagus starts to sprout.

AolivesAnd trustworthy those brassicas, aka cruciferous vegetables, are. (Why cruciferous? Before the flower opens, the four closed petals form a little cross atop the bud.) By any name, his big family covers an ample range of members, including, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, turnips, wasabi and even radishes. All, without exception, are huge nutritional powerhouses, sources of important phytochemicals (plant-based, naturally occurring chemicals), especially of various carotenoid and sulfur-containing compounds that may be important cancer fighters. This is nutrition-speak for saying, yes, they are very, very good for you! You can taste it in their characteristic spicy pungency.

They are also, when properly prepared, incredibly delicious — though you wouldn’t think so from generations of picky eaters, including at least one president of the United States, who have turned up their noses, and rightly so, at the sulfurous aromas of overcooked broccoli and cabbage, evocative of nothing so much as boardinghouse (or boarding school) kitchens.

Brassica vegetables perfectly suited to Mediterranean cooking

But believe me, it takes no great cooking skills to bring these vegetables to their full glory. In fact, several family members (like radishes) benefit from little or no cooking at all. And Brussels sprouts, shaved on the blade of a mandolin (or, to save your fingers, in a food processor), can be tossed with a very simple dressing made from olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of lemon zest, a little spoonful of mustard and a big spoonful of Greek yogurt all mixed together then poured over the sprouts. Leave them to tenderize in the dressing for half an hour before serving, and, if you want a more substantial salad, mix in a chopped hard-boiled egg or two.

Brussels sprouts aren’t actually well known in the Mediterranean, but they should be because they grow well in the cold but not bitter winters that characterize much of the region. Even if not particularly identified with the Mediterranean, they still benefit from a Med treatment in the kitchen: oven-roasting, for instance. Stir halved sprouts with a chopped clove of garlic, maybe a little chopped onion, some slivers of thick-sliced pancetta or country ham, a couple of glugs of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then spread them in a baking dish and set them in a hot oven (400 F) for about 20 minutes, stirring them up a couple of times, until the sprouts are crisp and brown on top and tender but not falling apart.

My all-time favorite member of this vast family, however, is totally Mediterranean, so much so that it was unknown in the United States except to Italian-American gardeners until just a few decades ago. That’s the vegetable known here as broccoli rabe or broccoli raab or rapini — all names that betray its origin in Italian market gardens, where it has long been a winter staple And my favorite way of cooking this delight goes back a long time to when I lived in Rome in the late 1970s and a tiny restaurant in the tiny Piazza Montevecchio offered orecchiette alla barese. Orecchiette are a famous Pugliese pasta — shaped like little ears, which is what orecchiette means. In the town of Bari, Italy, it’s traditionally served with this stupendous steamed broccoli rabe, the whole thing dressed with a mini-sauce of garlic, anchovies and crushed dried chili peppers steeped in hot olive oil.

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Broccoli rabe fresh at the market. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I’ve made this dish for years — to me it’s the absolute quintessence of the Mediterranean eating, pasta, garlic and good oil with a terrific pungent green, totally vegetarian except for the anchovies (and if you leave them out, you’ll have to add more salt), totally healthful, quick and easy and loved by almost everyone who samples it.

When I made this for Sunday supper, I didn’t happen to have any orecchiette on hand, so I used the whole-wheat pennucce, which look like short, lightly ridged penne, from Benedetto Cavaglieri. That pasta-maker’s wares are available from Williams-Sonoma and a few other online providers. You could also use farfalle, conchiglie or fusilli.

Orecchiette alla Barese

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 bunches broccoli rabe (aka rapini), weighing 1 pound each

Sea salt

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 anchovy fillets, chopped, or cut to your size preference

1 small dried hot red chili, crumbled, or hot red pepper flakes to taste

1 pound orecchiette or similar pasta

Directions

1. Clean the broccoli rabe, discarding any wilted or yellowing leaves along with the tough part of the stems. Chop the broccoli rabe in pieces about 1 inch long. Rinse thoroughly and set aside.

2. In a large pasta kettle, bring about 4 cups of water to a rolling boil and add a generous spoonful of salt.

3. While the water is coming to a boil, start the garlic-anchovy sauce by adding the chopped garlic to the olive oil in a small saucepan. Cook over gentle heat just until the garlic bits are soft.

4. Stir in the anchovy pieces and use a fork to crush and mash them into the hot oil.

5. Add the chili pepper and stir. If the pasta is not yet ready, remove from the heat — but heat it again just to the sizzling point before pouring it over the pasta (see below).

6. Tip the pasta into the rapidly boiling water, stir with a long-handled spoon, and cover the pot. As soon as the water boils again, remove the lid and cook — orecchiette will take 12 to 15 minutes to become al dente.

7. Halfway through the cooking time, add the broccoli rabe to the pasta and stir to mix well. Continue cooking until the pasta is done — the broccoli rabe should cook just 5 to 6 minutes, so if you’re using something other than orecchiette, time it according to the package directions.

8. Have ready a warm serving bowl. Heat the olive oil sauce to sizzling if it has been removed from heat.

9. When the pasta is done, but still a bit al dente, drain the pasta and greens and turn them immediately into the warmed serving bowl. Stir to distribute the greens throughout the pasta, then dribble the hot garlic-anchovy-chili oil over the top. Toss again, adding a little more olive oil if you wish, then add a generous amount of ground pepper. Serve immediately.

(Note: Grated cheese is not appropriate with this pasta.)

Top photo: Pasta (pennucce) with broccoli rabe and garlic-anchovy-chili sauce. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins



Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

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