When it comes to cooking, I absolutely love Italian food. Real Italian food, that is. In America, until recently, like all too many ethnic foods, Italian food was bastardized into trashy stuff - mostly sickeningly sweet tomato stuff from cans. Real Italian food is wonderful, simple, and fresh. Italian cooking is all about getting the best quality fresh ingredients, and doing as little to them as possible.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to Eataly. Eataly is a labor of love by the wonderful Italian chef Mario Batali. It's a sort of massive Italian market, with a collection of restaurants embedded in it, cooking the stuff that they sell. There's a pasta restaurant, a pizza oven, a seafood restaurant, a salumeria, a cruda bar (cruda is sort of like Italian sashimi: very fresh fish, served raw with a sprinkle of salt and olive oil), and so on.
We went to the pasta place there, and had the most phenomenal pasta dish. It was everything that I love about good Italian cooking: amazing ingredients, prepared in a simple way that brings out their flavors. It was amazing. So, naturally, I had to reproduce it at home. And being Italian food, that was pretty easy to do - because it's such a simple dish!
The dish was Orichette with sweet Italian sausage and broccoli rabe. Basically, you need a really good sausage, and really good fresh broccolli rabe. It's all about those flavors, without distractions.
The trick to this is the length of the cooking time. It took me a while to figure this out: I tend to cook veggies Chinese style, which means that I barely cook them at all. I stir fry american broccoli for under a minute. But that doesn't work for rabe. Broccoli rabe is an absolutely lovely veggie, but it really needs to be cooked well. When it's raw, it's got a very strong, almost overwhelming horseradishy bitterness. You need to really let it cook for a while to get it past that. But the thing about it is, unlike the typical American broccoli, it's got the strength to handle that. It doesn't turn into mush. You cook rabe for 20 minutes, and it's still got some body to it. Do it right, and it's one of the most lovely, succulent vegetables in the world.
- 3/4 pound good quality sweet sausage meat. It's important to get a really good quality sausage. If you buy a cheap prepackaged sausage from the grocery store, the dish won't work. You want a really good fresh Italian sausage. We bought our at the butcher counter at Eataly. You should remove the skin, so that all you have is the meat, crumbled.
- A head brocolli rabe, cut into roughly two-inch lengths.
- 4 cloves minced garlic
- Salt and pepper
- Chili flakes
- One cup dry white wine
- 1 teaspoon sugar (just enough to take the edge off the acid from the wine)
- Olive oil
- One pound orichette
- Heat a saute pan. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil when it's hot.
- Throw in the sausage meat. Stir it around, breaking it up into smallish bite-sized pieces. Cook it on high heat until it gets nicely browned.
- Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic and chili flakes, and then the broccoli. It will look like it's way too much brocolli rabe, but don't worry. It's going to cook down a lot.
- Stir around until the broccoli rabe starts to wilt. Then add the white wine and the sugar, and reduce the heat to a low boil.
- Start cooking the pasta. Orichette generally cooks for a bit more than ten minutes, and the broccoli rabe should cook for between 15 and 20 minutes, so work out your timing from that so that they'll both finish at the same time.
- When most of the white wine has cooked away from the sauce, add 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Whenever the sauce starts to look dry, add some of the pasta water. This adds some salt (because your pasta water should be salted!), and it also helps to build the sauce, because the starch acts as a binder.
- Taste the sauce, and add salt and pepper as needed.
- When the pasta is done, drain it, and add it to the sauce, drizzle with a few more tablespoons of olive oil, and toss it together.
Serve with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese.