I have to tell you about my new favorite pasta. I’m absolutely in love with orecchiette (oh-rayk-kee-EHT-teh), a dimple of a pasta with a funny name. Orecchiette, which actually means “little ears” in Italian, is typically made by pressing the thumb into a small round of pasta dough against a wooden board. The resulting rough irregular shape does resemble a little ear, though the commercially available versions are more uniformly dome-shaped. A good quality orecchiette will have a textured or ridged outer surface, which beautifully clings onto sauce while the saucer-like concave side is perfect for grabbing onto little nuggets of goodness. With its toothsome bite, this pasta eats surprisingly heartily, which also makes it well suited for pairing with vegetables and lighter ingredients.
My favorite preparation of orecchiette is simply with Italian sausage and rapini (also known as broccoli rabe). The combination came to me while perusing my local market as I was trying to let the freshest ingredients inspire the dish. Here I was thinking I was being creative and resourceful, to later find out that orecchiette with sausage and rapini is quite a classic pairing. So much for originality, but hell, it sure is tasty.
The key to cooking with orecchiette, in my opinion, is to make all the ingredients similarly sized. In this dish, the ground sausage meat, diced onion, and chopped rapini are all easily picked up by the dimples of the pasta, cradling flavor with every fork or spoonful. On the topic of flavor, the semi-one pot nature of this dish helps to build layers upon layers of it. The sausage browns first, then the onions get sauteed in the pork fat. The rapini and garlic gets cooked in the same pot as well, the steam from the leaves helps pull off the fond or brown crusty bits. A generous handful of cheese at the end lends richness and an extra hint of salt, while the lemon-scented breadcrumbs adds a nice textural contrast and a bright citrusy note. If you’re pressed for time, skip the breadcrumbs but do add the lemon zest to the dish.
I do have to admit that I haven’t tried making orecchiette any other way, though many ideas come to mind (with gorgonzola and crumbled bacon, cold with pesto and ripe cherry tomatoes, or a with rich hearty bolognese). I’m just content for now to have it this way, because it’s so good.
If you can’t find rapini, regular broccoli will do just fine. Makes 4 servings.
For breadcrumbs, melt butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs, stir and toast until golden brown, taking care not to burn the crumbs. Remove from heat, stir in lemon zest. Spread out crumbs onto a baking sheet to cool.
Brown sausage in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once sausage has some color, add onion and cook until sausage is no longer pink inside and onion is soft and caramelized. Remove sausage and onion mixture and set aside. In the same pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes, then add rapini. Cook rapini until wilted and soft, about 5 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat, add juice of 1/2 a lemon, and let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer the rapini to a cutting board and chop finely. Return rapini, sausage, and onion to saucepan. Mix well and set aside.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook orecchiette al dente or according to package instructions, approximately 10 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving cooking liquid. Add pasta and cheese to the saucepan with rapini and sausage, stirring to incorporate all the ingredients. Add remaining 1/2 lemon juice. Add reserved cooking liquid a little at a time, stirring until the pasta is not dry. Serve pasta in bowls and top with breadcrumbs and additional cheese.