March 10, 2009

Orecchiette con cime di rapa

This is one of my favourite pasta dishes of all time - I could eat it every day of the week (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration, but it definitely makes a regular appearance on my table). Fortunately, in addition to being tasty eats, it's also pretty darn good for you so it's a guilt-free "indulgence".

Italians like to give very descriptive names to their pasta shapes and these little cap-shaped shells are called "orecchiette", which means "little ears". They are traditionally made by hand in the Puglia and Basilicata regions of southern Italy. The dough is rolled into a thin rope and then cut into small pieces which are individually dragged on a board, typically with a knife, and then turned out with the thumb; this is what creates the characteristic roughness on the outside of the pasta. It may look simple but trust me it takes a lot of practice to master this shape.

No worries if you're not up to the challenge of making your own because good orecchiette are now widely available. If you can find them, do yourself a favour and pick up a bag of artisanal orecchiette (they are usually made in Italy and will be labelled "artigianale"). They are available at every Italian grocery I have ever been in and are carried by some supermarkets - they are pricey but they cook up dense and chewy and are well worth the few extra pennies a bowl.

Even better, visit Bari in Puglia or Matera, a city in Basilicata renowned for its incredible bread - often considered the best in Italy. While few North Americans venture to these areas of Italy it is a trip worth making. Mountainous and rugged regions, they contain many hidden treasures.

In addition to having a reputation for delicious food, Matera is also a UNESCO world heritage site famous for the "sassi di Matera", ancient homes dug right into the rock face, essentially forming caves that have been inhabited for thousands of years.

The best orecchiette I ever had were in Matera on a visit a few years ago at a restaurant overlooking the sassi. Technically they were "strascinate", which are slightly flatter than orecchiette, but otherwise quite similar. They were fresh and made by hand and I can still taste them now...

Sorry, where was I? Right, recreating this dish at home. It's pretty simple and, like most Italian cooking, comes down to the freshness of the ingredients.

Rapini are at their best and most tender in the colder months. In Italy the growing season begins in the winter and stretches into early spring, but where I live (which is unfortunately much colder than Italy) rapini are in season in the late summer through autumn. Imported rapini are available year-round but this pasta really is at its best during the colder months so enjoy it while you can because spring is just around the corner (I hope!).

Trim and wash a bunch of rapini (aka broccoli rabe) - you want to remove any yellowed leaves and the trim the ends of the stalks. Avoid buying rapini that have flowered (you will see small yellow flowers blooming in the buds); while they are still edible it is a sign that the greens are past their prime.

I like to saute the rapini with a bit of water, olive oil, garlic and pepperoncino - my mother, on the other hand, prefers to add the rapini to the pasta while it's cooking (about halfway through the cooking time). My method preserves the integrity of the rapini whereas the boiling method removes more of the bitterness of the greens. Both are delicious and it comes down to personal preference - I like the pronounced taste of rapini but if you want milder greens then by all means boil away!

I also like to add breadcrumbs sauteed in extra-virgin olive oil to the finished dish. Once the rapini are cooked remove them from the pan. Return the pan to medium heat and add a bit of olive oil then add a small handful of fine breadcrumbs. Heat through for a few seconds and then pour over the cooked pasta and rapini and serve. Delish!

Buon appetito!

This is my submission to Presto Pasta Nights which is being hosted this week by Ben of What's Cooking. Head on over to Ben's site on Friday to check out this week's roundup.

Orecchiette con cime di rapa
Serves 4-6

500g orecchiette pasta (preferably an artisanal brand)
2 bunches rapini, washed and trimmed
2 tbsp olive oil
50 ml water
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp fine breadcrumbs
salt and pepperoncino to taste

Prepare pasta according to package directions.

While pasta is cooking heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add garlic and pepperoncino and saute until you smell the aroma of the garlic (this should take no more than a minute). Add rapini and 50 ml of water and cook until tender and the water has evaporated.*

Place the rapini in a bowl and return the pan to medium heat. Add the second tablespoon of olive oil and the breadcrumbs; saute for a minute or two until lightly toasted.

Drain the orecchiette and toss with the rapini and pour the olive oil and breadcrumb mixture over the top and toss again.

*Variation: If you prefer milder greens, skip this step and add the rapini to the pasta water while the pasta is cooking, approximately halfway through the cooking time. Saute the garlic with the pepperoncino and then add the breadcrumbs to the pan and toss with the drained pasta and rapini when cooked.


  1. The dish looks lovely and thanks for the guide to Matera...a place I must get to. It looks so romantic.

    Thanks for sharing with Presto Pasta Nights. A great second venture and I hope to see many more.

  2. I've never had anything like that before, but I can see why you love it so much. Thanks for participating in PPN this week :)

  3. Quite rightly you point out that anchovies are often one of the ingredients in this dish, although I consider them optional.

    If you are using, I recommend adding them to the sauteing garlic and pepperoncino before adding the rapini so that they "melt" into the finished dish.

    Don't worry, the dish won't taste of anchovies - it will just have an additional layer of flavour.

  4. Well well, now I finally know what was that green (and btw, very tasty!) vegetable we had a few years ago in a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam - rapini... thank you for opening my eyes ;) Lovely recipe!