Orecchiette alle cime di rapa
The scary looking Scottish teacher in the Pink Floyd video of Another Brick in the Wall yelling at the kids in his class “if you don’t eat your meat you can’t have any pudding” got it completely wrong because for most children growing up in England 50+ years ago, who didn’t go to posh schools like the Pink Floyd band members, the refrain was always “if you don’t eat your greens you can’t have any pudding”. Most of us would have happily eaten more meat and I was not alone in not caring much for anything green on my plate except frozen peas because even an English cook back then couldn’t make a mess of frozen peas.
Since those dark dismal bye-gone days, vegetables of all kinds can be the star of any meal anywhere but that has always been true of Italian cuisine and nowhere more so than Puglia. My understanding of, and appreciation for, simple Pugliesi dishes came almost 9 years ago during an intensive cooking course in Lecce at a fabulous culinary school called Awaiting Table run by the very talented and bi-cultural Silvestro Silvestori, who also taught me how to make orecchiette from scratch.
And I still have the photo (above) of my first attempt making it by myself back in Austin not long after the course. It’s not that difficult but there is a knack to it that takes a bit of practice. Easier just to buy dried pasta, also trying to judge the cooking time of fresh pasta is not as simple as dried pasta because there is really no such thing as ‘al dente’ with fresh pasta, because if it’s even a little undercooked you’ll taste the flour.
Silvestro told me to keep a few of the first orecchiette I made (which of course I didn't, who would really do that?) because apparently once they've dried fully they will keep for years. He went on to say that after you've made orecchiette by hand five or six times you'll look at your first batch and swear they were made by some other idiot. I think the photograph serves that purpose just as well.
Puglia has always symbolized la cucina povera and its food traditions reflect its geographical isolation and long history of relative poverty. Meat was rare and dairy almost non-existent so vegetables were often the main ingredient, hence the most famous dish that everyone in Italy associates with Puglia is Orecchiette alle cime di rapa.
Orecchiette translates as 'little ears' because of the shape of the pasta and cime di rapa are the green tops of turnips known as broccoli rabe in the US. It’s a slightly bitter highly nutritious member of the cruciferous family of vegetables that also includes mustard greens but, unlike broccoli or cauliflower, does not grow large florets on thick stems.
Strangely in the UK today, and also to a large degree in the US, this simple dish is very much in fashion in fancy restaurants instead of being a cheap staple in kitchens at home as it is in Italy.
In fact with many chefs these days (Jamie Oliver etc) talking about educating poorer people on the subject of healthy diets and nutrition to wean them off fast food and frozen dinners, which are often quite expensive and not particularly nutritious, this dish should be exhibit number one.
Cime di rapa in Italy costs 1.35 euros for a big bunch of about 750 grams and dried pasta is about 65 cents for 250 grams, so even with a generous application of olive oil this is a dinner for two people that costs little more than 2 euros and takes only 20 minutes to prepare. Furthermore it’s loaded with vitamins A, C and K as well as fibre, calcium, a small amount of protein and as many carbs as you care to choose in your portion of pasta. Rapa is also a sulphur rich vegetable which means a healthy dose of amino acids.
Ingredients for 2 people:
250 grams ( 9 oz ) orecchiette (if not available substitute cavatelli or tofarelle)
about 750 grams ( 1.65 lbs) shop weight of cime di rapa before trimming
3 or 4 cloves of garlic
extra virgin Italian olive oil
a few chili pepper flakes
1 or 2 anchovy fillets (optional)
½ cup proper breadcrumbs (not shop bought ‘dust’)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Buy good fresh dark green cime di rapa with few if any yellowing leaves and preferably with a good amount of small florets between the stems.
2. Wash or soak thoroughly in cold water.
3. Discard all the thick stems by ripping off the leaves and florets. The thin stems are fine to keep.
4. Chop quite finely into fingernail size pieces but you don’t need to be too fussy about it.
1. Very generously oil a large high-sided sauté pan and put in 3 or 4 cloves of garlic on a medium heat and by the time you’ve finished chopping the greens they will be starting to color and you can discard them all. Some people also like to melt an anchovy or two into the olive oil at this stage.
2. Add the wet greens to the pan at the same time as you add the pasta to boiling water in another pan as both will take about 10-11 minutes to cook.
3. Salt both pans and add some chili pepper flakes to the greens.
4. Stir the greens frequently, adjust the heat as required and add more salt and/or oil as necessary as you taste the cime di rapa while it's cooking.
5. When the pasta is ready, add it to the pan with the greens. Stir in the breadcrumbs and a big slug of your best quality olive oil and serve. If your pan isn’t big enough this can all be done in a separate bowl but it will all cool down much quicker if you have to do this extra step before serving.
As this is a classic dish from the Salento (the name for the southern part of Puglia) try to find a bottle of the Salento white wine Verdeca to pair with it.
This dinner can also be made with mustard greens or cultivated dandelion greens (tarassaco), both of which are much more peppery and bitter than rapa so some people choose to par boil them first. I don't, but I sautée them quite wet which results in some steaming.
Tarassaco by the way has an amusing colloquial name in Italy, piscia-a-letto, which literally means 'piss in bed' and it's a children's name for edible dandelions because they are known to be a natural diuretic.