Why It Works
- Blanching broccoli rabe ensures it's tender, and using the blanching water to cook the pasta maximizes efficiency.
- Garlic, a tiny bit of anchovy, and dried chiles form a flavorful base for the sauce, along with a splash of white wine for acidity and subtle sweetness that balances the bitterness of the rabe.
- Starchy cooking water helps build an emulsified sauce, and finishing the pasta in the skillet ensures the orecchiette are well coated and perfectly al dente.
This dish is a meaty variation on Puglia's famed orecchiette con le cime di rapa. Both versions feature al dente pasta tossed with bitter broccoli rabe that's been cooked down into a sauce with olive oil, garlic, chiles, and starchy pasta cooking water. Here, fresh pork sausage and a splash of white wine join the party, filling in for the assertive savory punch of anchovies used in the cucina povera ("poor cuisine") classic. The sausage adds juicy fattiness and floral notes of fennel to the mix, while the sweet acidity of the wine balances the bite of the rabe. It's a richer dish, in more ways than one.
For purists, "cime" are just the tender leaves and florets of broccoli rabe. They are picked from the more fibrous stalks of the plant, which are then discarded or used for other purposes. For orecchiette con le cime di rapa, we recommend following this practice, as the texture in the dish should come from the chew of the pasta and the crunch of the toasted breadcrumb topping, rather than the vegetables. But for this dish, we blanch the tender stalks as well as the leaves and florets, so that they end up with the same light chew as the sausage.
Even though anchovies don't generally feature in sausage-and-rabe recipes, I still like to dissolve one or two fillets in oil along with the garlic and chiles. They provide background savoriness without announcing their presence in the dish. As with aglio e olio, the pasta finishes cooking in the "sauce," if you can call it that, which is just an emulsion of olive oil and the water used to cook the rabe and orecchiette. Because the water also has some flavor from the rapini, I like to use a lot of it to finish the pasta, leaving the sauce looser, on the very edge of being slightly brothy. Tossed, stirred, and swirled over high heat, this mixture forms a glossy coating for the noodles.
Whereas orecchiette con le cime di rapa is traditionally a no-cheese pasta, this version allows for a dairy exception. A small handful of grated salty cheese like Pecorino Romano is not out of the question, providing a sharp, tangy foil to the peppery olive oil and bitter greens. Of course, for those who prefer to keep the dish dairy-free, the crispy breadcrumbs used as a stand-in for cheese in the original will also work just fine.
- Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 9 ounces (255g) sweet or hot Italian sausage (about 3 links), removed from casing
- 3 garlic cloves (15g), minced
- 1 to 2 anchovy fillets (optional, see note)
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup (120ml) dry white wine
- 1 pound (450g; about 2 small bunches) broccoli rabe (rapini), ends trimmed, leaves picked and separated from stalks with florets
- 12 ounces (340g) dried orecchiette
- 1 1/2 ounces (45g) finely grated Pecorino Romano, divided
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat olive over medium heat until shimmering. Using clean hands, add sausage to skillet by pinching off 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces and arranging in a single layer in the pan. Alternatively, add sausage to skillet all at once, then break up into pieces with a wooden spoon, spreading them out evenly in the pan. Cook over medium heat, undisturbed, until bottom side is light golden brown, about 2 minutes. Using a spoon or thin metal spatula, turn sausage pieces onto uncooked side. Add garlic, anchovy (if using), and pepper flakes, and continue to cook until fragrant and anchovy has dissolved, 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Increase heat to medium-high and add wine. Bring to a simmer and cook, swirling pan and scraping up any stuck-on bits with a wooden spoon, until wine has emulsified with olive oil and mixture is slightly reduced, about 30 seconds. Turn off heat.
Add broccoli rabe stalk pieces (with florets attached) to boiling water and cook until stalks are barely tender, 1 minute 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Using a spider skimmer, drain well and transfer to a plate. Add rabe leaves to boiling water and cook until barely tender, about 1 minute. Drain, while keeping boiling water in the pot; transfer rabe leaves to plate with blanched stalks, keeping them separate. Using a sharp knife, cut stalks and florets into 1 1/2-inch pieces, then combine with blanched leaves; set rabe aside.
Add orecchiette to boiling water and cook, stirring frequently for first 30 seconds to prevent pasta from sticking. Once pasta has cooked for 5 minutes, transfer 1 cup (240ml) of pasta cooking water to skillet along with broccoli rabe; continue cooking pasta. Return skillet to high heat and bring to a boil, swirling and stirring pan constantly until cooking water emulsifies with olive oil mixture, 1 to 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, continue cooking pasta until it is softened on the exterior, but well shy of al dente and still uncooked in the center (about 3 minutes less than the package directions). Using a spider skimmer, transfer pasta to skillet. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 2 cups (475ml) pasta cooking water.
Cook on high heat, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened and coats noodles, 2 to 3 minutes, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed. At this point, the sauce should just pool around the edges of the pan; it will continue to tighten up in the time it takes to plate and serve, so make sure it's a little looser than the ideal serving consistency.
Remove from heat, add 3/4 of grated cheese, and stir rapidly to incorporate. Season with salt to taste. Serve immediately, passing remaining grated cheese at the table.
Large skillet, spider skimmer
Anchovy adds savory depth to the sauce, but you can omit them if you’re not a fan.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This dish is best enjoyed immediately. Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.