Photo: France Ruffenach
Orecchiette pasta—its name translates to "little ears"—has an ingenious shape, formed by pressing your thumb into a hazelnut-size ball of dough to create a rough depression, a tiny cup that captures sauce beautifully. As you might imagine, making orecchiette is a time-consuming activity. A 1-lb ball of pasta dough is not large—about the size of half a grapefruit—but when you are making orecchiette, it can look more like a mountain than a mound. Most of the time, I use store-bought orecchiette, which are readily available in most supermarkets. But occasionally, on the weekend, I will take the time to make them. They have a lovely, tender-chewy texture that shows off this clingy, velvety sauce beautifully. If you have the time, it's worth the effort. I use two kinds of broccoli in this recipe; the common cruciferous vegetable we are all familiar with, and Italian rapini (also known as broccoli rabe and cime di rapa), which is much leafier, with small florets and an assertive, bitter flavor. Mixed together in the sauce, they achieve a nice balance.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • 1 batch Whole Wheat Pasta Dough or White Whole Wheat Pasta Dough (please see separate recipe), or 1 lb dried orecchiette
  • Semolina flour for dusting, if making orecchiette (optional)
  • Unbleached all-purpose/plain flour for dusting and for shaping the dough, if making the orecchiette (optional)
For the sauce
  • 1 head broccoli, about 1 lb, stalks trimmed and reserved for another use or discarded and head separated into florets
  • 1 bunch rapini, about 1 lb, tough stalks discarded
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp kosher or fine sea salt, or to taste
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup homemade vegetable broth, homemade chicken broth, or best-quality low-sodium, fat-free commercial vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup heavy/double cream
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese for serving

Directions

Mix the pasta dough as directed and let it rest. Lightly dust a work surface with semolina. Place a small bowl of all-purpose/plain flour nearby. Dust a rimmed baking sheet/tray or clean tablecloth with semolina or all-purpose flour. Pinch off a golf ball–sized piece of dough and rerwrap the rest so it does not dry out. Using your palms, roll the piece of dough on the dusted surface into a rope the thickness of a pinkie finger. Cut the rope crosswise into small pieces, each about the size of a hazelnut (1/4 to 1/2 in thick). Working with 1 piece at a time, roll it between your palms to form a ball. With the thumb of one hand, press the ball into the middle of the palm of your other hand to form a deep depression in the dough. Rotate the dough and repeat the pressing once or twice, rotating the dough after each impression. You want to create a small, deep saucer. If the dough sticks, dip your thumb into the bowl of flour. Place the finished shape on the flour-dusted baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough until you have shaped it all.

(If you plan to cook the orecchiette within a day of shaping, you can leave them out until it is time to cook them.)

To make the sauce: Bring water to a depth of about 1/2 in to a boil in a steamer pan placed over medium-high heat. Arrange the broccoli florets on the steamer rack, place the rack in the pan, cover, and steam the broccoli for 4 to 5 minutes, or until bright green. Transfer the florets to a bowl and set aside.

Check the water in the steamer pan, and add more as needed until it is 1/2 in deep. Bring to a boil, put the rapini on the steamer rack, cover, and steam for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the leaves and florets are wilted. Transfer to the bowl holding the broccoli.

Warm 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the garlic in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the garlic is fragrant but not browned. Add the broccoli and rapini and cook, stirring occasionally, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables and garlic are very tender. Stir in the salt and cayenne pepper and raise the heat to medium-high. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, or until some of the wine has evaporated. Remove from the heat and let the vegetables cool for about 10 minutes.

Transfer the vegetables and their cooking liquid to a blender or food processor, add the remaining 1/4 cup oil, and puree until smooth. Gradually add the broth, about 1/4 cup at a time, and process until the puree is the consistency of a thick sauce. You should have about 3 cups sauce.

Return the sauce to the sauté pan and place over low heat. Stir in the cream and heat until warmed through.

While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Add the orecchiette and stir to separate. If using fresh pasta, cover the pot until the water comes back to a boil, then uncover and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until al dente. If using dried pasta, cook according to the manufacturer's instructions until al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water.

Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl and spoon about two-thrids of the sauce over it. Toss gently to combine the pasta and sauce thoroughly, adding a splash or two of the cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Spoon the remaining sauce over the top and sprinkle with the cheese. Serve immediately.

Simplify: The orecchiette may be made in advance and frozen (uncooked). Arrange them in a single layer on rimmed baking sheets/trays dusted with semolina and freeze for 1 hour, or until firm. Transfer them to a zipper-lock freezer bag or a tightly lidded container and freeze for up to 1 month, then cook directly from the freezer.