Pleasantly Bitter & Spicy Wherewithal

This classic Italian recipe is a perfect seasonal dish for the cooler weather of fall through late winter when broccoli rabe, or rapini, is at its best. This is a regular meal at our house, made with readily available ingredients; it has a mild bitter tang that is an appealing contrast to the spicy pork sausage served with carb-loaded pasta that is  a hit with always-starving teenagers.

Broccoli rabe, which is not technically related to broccoli at all, is an unusual and healthy addition to any meal. When young and tender you can eat it all, from stems to the florets and even the delicate yellow blossoms. We blanch the rabe to tenderize the stalks (with the added benefit of enhancing the brilliant green color.)

This dish is a masterpiece of textures and flavors with crisp spicy meaty, earthy pleasantly bitter greens, and piquant creamy cheese. As you toss the ingredients with the orecchiette (Italian for "little ears,") the juices and flavors are captured in the hollows of the concave pasta. It’s a forgiving recipe which can withstand variations in ingredients and types of pasta; a successful compilation on all levels which explains its long-standing popularity in Italian cuisine.

  • 2 Ibs. broccoli rabe, stems removed
  • 1 lb. hot Italian sausage
  • 1 Ib. orecchiette pasta (or penne)
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 7 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1-2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Pecorino-Romano, grated

Bring a deep saucepan of salted water to a boil, and then place broccoli rabe in the boiling water. Allow water (and rabe) to return to a boil and simmer until bubbles appear. Remove from the pot from the heat and drain water from greens. Plunge broccoli rabe into cold water to stop the cooking process and drain again. Extract as much water as possible by patting rabe dry. We use a towel to roll greens and blot dry and then and set them aside.

Cook orecchiette in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente which should take about 10-12 minutes. We use the blanching water whenever feasible to retain the flavor and nutrients of the rabe. Remember to save some of pasta water to help hydrate the sauce if needed.

Remove sausage from casings and cook in a large sauté pan until done (about ten minutes) turning every few minutes and breaking into bite-sized pieces while cooking. When the sausage is cooked through, remove meat to a plate leaving juices and crispy bits in the sauté pan.

Add olive oil to the reserved sausage juices and heat over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant and just golden, (about 3 minutes.) Then add broccoli rabe and sausage back to the pan and season to taste with salt, and red and black peppers. Cook together until warmed through, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and keep warm until pasta is ready.

Drain pasta in a colander, then add to broccoli rabe and sausage, and toss to mix well. Add reserved pasta water as needed to allow the sauces to fully coat the pasta giving it a creamy, smooth consistency.  Transfer to a large serving plate and top with grated Pecorino-Romano. Remember to stop and savor the aroma and flavors that have been satisfying Italian appetites for centuries.