I think I’m getting old.
And one of the biggest reasons I think that is that I’m enjoying more and more bitter foods. One of those foods is rapini (also called broccoli rabe) and it’s a regular weeknight meal in our household. If I have the time and need a bit of a kitchen-oriented workout, I’ll make a semolina dough and shape it into orecchiette- “little ears” in Italian, or “little bellybuttons” if I’m being honest with myself about how mine look. Otherwise, dried rigatoni or other short pasta does great here and dinner comes together in well under an hour.
This dish is essentially orecchiette con cime di rapa, in a style that an Italian friend of mine showed me one day. The version he showed me involved blending the blanched greens down to a puree and using it as the body of a slightly garlicky sauce with a savoury boost from anchovy. Despite the anchovy, the sauce doesn’t taste fishy at all but you can add more if you’re into that. I like to make the sauce chunky (which also happens to be what my food processor can handle), but you can blend it into a smooth sauce if you’re so inclined.
The move here as far as I’m concerned is actually in the topping. You take that savoury garlic-‘chovy base and olive oil and fry some breadcrumbs in it. Generously seasoned, it fills that salty-savoury role of a cheese sprinkle but with the bonus of crispiness. Between the chunky sauce, the savoury punch, and the textural contrast, I find it incredibly satisfying even without a lot of meat. This recipe makes a lot of the breadcrumbs since they’re probably my favourite part, but you can just make less if you plan to use them like cheese.
I’ve found that this dish is pretty flexible to substitutions. I sometimes use kale instead of rapini, different pasta types, sourdough or panko breadcrumbs, etc. since I don’t always have beautiful Mediterranean groceries at my disposal. The core ingredients (pasta, garlic, green veg, and breadcrumbs) are things I always have around, and oil-packed anchovies last pretty much forever in the fridge.
Pasta with Rapini
- 1 bunch (roughly 350g) rapini, thick stems removed
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-3 oil-packed anchovies, chopped finely
- 450g fresh orecchiette or 225g dried short pasta
- Approx. 1 cup breadcrumbs
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Red pepper flakes (optional)
- Pecorino Romano (or Parmigiano Reggiano), grated (optional)
Start boiling a large pot of generously salted water.
Trim any yellow leaves off the rapini and the bottom inch of stalks, if they’re thick. Chop into 2-inch long pieces. For bonus points, set the florets aside.
Mince the garlic and anchovies.
When the water comes to a boil, add the pieces of rapini (excluding the florets, if you’ve reserved them) and boil for one minute until the colour turns bright green. After that minute, remove from the pot and rinse with cold water to cool them down, and then drain. Return the pot of water to the stove and bring back up to a boil.
Add the cooked rapini to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until it becomes a chunky puree.
Heat up another pot or Dutch oven over medium heat with 4 tbsp/60mL olive oil. Add half of the garlic and anchovies, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. A minute later, add the breadcrumbs. Keep the mixture moving in the pot for about two minutes, or until the crumbs have started to brown. Season with salt and pepper (should be slightly salty), and red pepper flakes, if desired.
Once the breadcrumbs are toasted, remove to a bowl and set aside.
If you are using fresh pasta that takes more than 8 minutes to cook, add it to the pot of boiling water and cook until 1 minute shy of al dente. If you’re using fresh, wait until the sauce is almost done.
Heat up the pot you used for the bread crumbs again over medium, with another 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the remaining half of the garlic and anchovies and stir, breaking up clumps of anchovy. If you set the florets aside, this is the time to add them to the pot and saute them until cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add the blended greens to the pot and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
If you’re using fresh pasta, add it to the boiling salted water and cook until just shy of al dente. In either pasta scenario, set aside about 1 cup of pasta cooking water before draining.
Transfer the cooked pasta to the sauce pot and stir to combine, adding pasta water as needed and stirring to make the sauce come together and coat the pasta.
Serve with a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and grated pecorino or parm, if desired.