February 11, 2008

Orecchiette from Puglia

The first time I really understood the beauty of the pasta called "little ears" I was in the region where they hail from in Southern Italy-- Puglia. In Puglia there is still a strong tradition of making pasta at home or buying it from the local pasta artisans--who make it by hand. And in the South the pasta is usually made only with semolina, sea salt and warm water-- without eggs or all-purpose flour. Egg-based pasta is synonymous with Northern Italian cooking.

I love orecchiette because their shape is purely a function of their purpose: holding little bits of sauce or cheese in every bite. When I had them in Puglia, they were typically served with a sauce of 'cime di rape', also known as broccoli rabe or rapini, garlic and oil, anchovies, and pungent chilies. They were so good I can hardly remember it without my mouth watering. So the other night was a pasta-feeling night and I had a pound of orecchiette that I bought somewhere around the holidays. (No, I didn't make them by hand, but one day I am going to try...)

Instead I adapted a recipe from Nancy Harmon-Jenkins's La Cucina del Sole- one of my favorite books of 2007. I also looked up the recipe in an Italian book I had bought in Puglia called simply La Cucuna del Sud with the most wonderful illustrations in it. This one omitted the anchovies but was essentially the same. For a dish so simple to make it has an extraordinary complexity of flavors: the bitterness of the greens with the sweet garlic and oil, the salty anchovies and the hot chilies. I didn't actually have any rapini on hand but I had a bunch of turnip greens. I thought they would provide enough bitterness. I also remembered having a sauce with cauliflower and bread crumbs so I added both of those, turning it into a sort of cross between two classic sauces for orecchiette.

Start by making a paste from the oil, garlic and anchovies. As soon as the garlic is brought to the point just before it starts to brown, add the thinly sliced anchovies and cook a minute, then add the peperoncino, or dried red chili peppers to taste - I added 1/2 tsp. but the recipe calls for one small dried red chili, coarsely chopped. Mash the anchovies and oil into a paste and set aside. Cook the broccoli (or greens or cauliflower) while cooking the pasta. Then toss the pasta with some extra olive oil, the anchovy paste and the greens and cauliflower, sprikle bread crumbs on top and serve with some paremesan cheese as a garnish.

We loved it! And it reminded me of being back in Puglia, in Summer, riding my bike down the coast to the bottom of the heel of the 'boot' and eating so many wonderful things...Hmmm. I need to get back there soon!

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