I love broccoli, which probably accounts for finding a large amount of it in my fridge this evening. So I decided to make it the star of my supper. I normally cook it very simply – my partial steaming method where I put the florets (I’m talking calabrese here, to be strictly correct) into a heavy Le Creuset saucepan with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan and make sure the stalks ends are in the water – in much the same way you might cook asparagus in a proper asparagus steamer. Then I salt lightly and put the lid on, bring to the boil, turn to a simmer and cook till the stalks are just tender. I find this way the broccoli keeps its colour but also retains all its flavour and is cooked through. Then I drain well and serve with some fruity extra virgin olive oil dribbled over the top and some freshly squeezed lemon juice. This is a very Italian way of serving vegetables, relying on good ingredients cooked in a way that brings out their full – and delicious! – flavour. I decided tonight to incorporate the basics of this way of eating broccoli into a pasta dish.
I’ve been eating a lot of orecchiette since holidaying in Puglia last year with my daughter. Puglia – right down into the heel of Italy – is a glorious place where you drive through acres of olive groves and see nothing else growing for mile upon mile, the landscape punctuated by trulli, strange little buildings with pointed grey roofs that were once used to house cattle but are now becoming chic tourist attractions in towns like Alberobello.
The staples of the Puglian diet are vegetables, fish, bread and pasta and its cuisine was once considered the food of the poor. The bread and pasta are made from the hard durum wheat that is grown there and pasta like orecchiette needs a bit more cooking than most of the pasta we are used to in UK. Orecchio is the Italian word for ‘ear’ and the little orecchiette pasta, so popular in Puglia, look like small ears – and have a lovely little dip into which sauce nicely nestles making it a perfect mouthful of sauce-filled pasta.
We stayed in a masseria – farmhouse – where we were fed huge portions of wonderful, hearty foods. The southern Italians have a very sweet tooth and we found the large array of freshly baked sweet cakes and syrupy fresh fruit salads a little too much for breakfast after a while so asked for something non-sugary for breakfast. Our wonderful host, Rita, at Masseria Serra dell’Isola near Bari, thus came back from the market early in the morning with fresh – still warm – little ricottas which she suggested we eat with local rosemary honey.
The food in Puglia reflects its proximity to eastern Europe and the influences of places like Greece and Turkey. Broccoli is actually very popular in the area, but I brought into the dish a little eastern spice with some chilli and another big Italian flavour – lemon. It’s a simple dish, easily prepared and fresh and delicious with its zesty lemon taste and nice warm hit of chilli.
Orecchiette with Broccoi, Lemon & Chilli
Cut some florets from a head of calabrese – enough for one – and cook (preferably as described above) in salted water until just tender. Drain and reserve just a little of the cooking liquid.
Meanwhile, get the pasta going as it’s likely to take between 15 to 20 minutes to cook to the al dente stage. When done, drain.
Put a good glug of olive oil in a pan with some chilli – I didn’t have fresh chilli so I put in about a level teaspoon (makes it quite hot) of dried chilli flakes – and a crushed small clove of garlic. When it’s hot, add the drained broccoli florets and toss around to coat with oil and grate over a little zest from a lemon. Then add a little of the reserved cooking water and allow to bubble up and cook for just a couple of minutes more (but remember the broccoli is already ‘done’ and you don’t want to overcook as that discolours it and spoils the flavour). Take off the heat and squeeze over some lemon juice, add freshly ground black pepper and check seasoning. You may not need salt as you’ve already used some in cooking the broccoli but add more if necessary, and get the lemon-y flavour just right for you.
Tip in the cooked orecchiette and toss everything together. Transfer to a serving plate and then grate over some Parmesan to taste. Then eat immediately – and enjoy!
(It’s not easy to find orecchiette in supermarkets – I buy mine in Carluccio’s – but you can always substitute another pasta, preferably one with a bit of a pocket to catch the juices. You’ll also probably need to cook it for less time so just follow instructions on the packet.)