My children have favored orecchiette since they realized they could suction these little ear-shaped pasta to the roofs of their mouths. Demonstrating this titillating feat to other eaters violates both the no-playing-with-your-food and the no-talking-with-your-mouth-full dinnertime rules, certainly. But nonetheless, the ticklish sensation and noisy release of said suction always reduces the table to giggles.
From the cook’s point of view, the cupped-shaped pasta nestle bits and pieces of chunky, quickly thrown-together sauces inside their curves for flavor surprises throughout the meal. And the somewhat chewy texture gives eaters more satisfaction than short weeknight dinner prep times typically provides.
Until a month ago I always bought dried orecchiette, literally translated from the Italian as ear (orecchio) plus small (etto). That was true until chef Ilma Jeil Lopez showed me how easy these little suckers are to make. Lopez and her husband, chef Damian Sansonetti, own Piccolo, a tiny but trendy Italian restaurant in Portland, Maine, where they make all of the pasta they serve.
Orecchiette go from raw ingredients to swimming in the sauce in about 30 minutes flat. Truly, I kid you not.
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Orecchiette is the easiest pasta in the world to make, chef Lopez told a group of adult students who had traipsed through knee-high snow banks into her restaurant early on a cold Saturday in January to glean from her information about cooking and baking with different types of flours.
Step 1: Measuring the ingredients
Lopez’s recipe for orecchiette requires only four ingredients: equal parts “00” flour (very finely ground soft wheat flour), semolina flour (a courser ground durum wheat flour typically used to make dried pasta) and water (Lopez suggest 225 grams of each flour and 225 milliliters water), and a generous glug (about 10 milliliters) of flavorful olive oil. The recipe includes no eggs to complicate the matter like most other fresh pasta formulas.
Step 2: Making the dough
The ingredients are combined in a bowl, kneaded into a ball on a clean surface until the dough is smooth inside and out, and rested for 5 minutes.
Step 3: Forming the little ears
Chunks are sliced from the dough, rolled into snakes, sliced into thumbnail-sized pieces, and deeply indented with a fingertip. That last bit is meditative if you do it alone, or works as a good distraction while trying to extract information out of your teens. Either works for me.
Should you want to make a double batch, fresh orecchiette freeze well. To do that, spread them out on a sheet pan and freeze them on the pan first. Once they are frozen, you can put them in plastic bags.
Step 4: Making the sauce
Orecchiette’s roots are in the southern Italian region of Puglia, where they are dressed in a simple sauce of blanched broccoli rabe that is cooked in the same water as the pasta, sautéed garlic and red chilies, and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Chef Lopez served her students orecchiette with a mélange of pre-roasted vegetables, browned butter, orange zest and shaved Parmesan. I like mine best with a pancetta-driven carbonara sauce as it comes together very quickly.
Step 5: Cooking the pasta
Handmade orecchiette cook in a boiling pot of heavily salted water. They do you the courtesy of floating to the surface when they are ready to eat, which typically takes only 2 to 3 minutes.
One of the bonuses of this type of pasta comes on the flip side when cleaning up. Other than sprinkling a baking tray with a skim coat of semolina flour to house the orecchiette while they await their turn in the pot, there is no extra flour to coax out from between the rollers of a pasta machine, wipe off the counter, sweep up from the floor, or shake off your clothing.
From the quick start to the easy finish, what’s not to love about these cute little ears, even on a weeknight?
Orecchiette With Roasted Vegetables and Brown Butter
This recipe is one adapted from what chef Ilma Jeil Lopez, who owns Piccolo in Portland, Maine, taught cooking class students how to use the orecchiette they made so easily with their own hands.
Prep time: 25 minutes (plus 30 minutes if not using pre-roasted vegetables)
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes (60 if not using pre-roasted vegetables)
Yield: 4 generous servings
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
1 cup roasted cauliflower, roughly chopped
1/2 cup greens, sautéed in olive oil, roughly chopped
1/2 cup roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/2 cup roasted eggplant, roughly chopped
1/4 cup sautéed onions, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
1 pound orecchiette
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1. Place a large pot of salted water over high heat.
2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. The butter will foam and then start to brown.
3. When it starts to brown, stir in red chili flakes. Cook for 15 seconds and then stir in cauliflower, greens, tomatoes, eggplant and onions.
4. Stir gently until sauce is heated through. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Cook orecchiette (2 to 3 minutes if fresh, according to packaged instruction if dried) in the large pot of salted water.
6. Drain pasta and add it to sauté pan. Gently stir. Check to see if it needs additional salt and pepper.
7. Grate orange zest over pasta and top with cheese shavings. Serve immediately.
Main image: Orecchiette are easy to make. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine Burns Rudalevige