Pasta with Broccoli, Anchovy & Chilli

I love broccoli and eat it a lot, and there is the added bonus that it is very, very good for you. It’s a rich source of Vitamin C and many other nutrients; the Food Doctor, Ian Marber, calls it ‘the perfect food’ in his book, Healing Foods for Mind and Body. As I said, the healthy aspect is a ‘bonus’ for me: it’s simply one of my favourite foods.

My intention had been to make a soup. Now that winter is fast drawing in and the days are shorter and colder, I like to have a selection of soups in my freezer, ready to pull out in individual portions for my lunch. Working from home has many bonuses and one of them is being easily able to eat well – though necessarily simply when I’m busy – at lunchtime. Broccoli makes a delicious soup but I wanted to gather some ideas of different ways I could flavour it. I therefore consulted my The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, a wonderful present from my daughter Nicola for my birthday last year.

The book is brilliant because you can look up any ingredient in the index and then find references – just like in a Thesaurus – in the book and discover the many flavourings and other foods it goes well with. I found one entry for broccoli in the Anchovy section and once I’d read a recipe for pasta with broccoli and anchovy, the soup intention was cast aside for another day (and blog post) and pasta was on the menu tonight.

The recipe is very simple and can be quickly prepared. I used those gorgeous little orecchiette pasta shapes that I like so much, as they collect all the juices and sauce in their little ‘ear’ like pockets and have that artisan, slightly rough texture as they’re made from durum wheat, typical of the region they come from in Italy, Puglia.

You might imagine that the anchovies would make this a ‘fishy’ dish but while I would hesitate to serve it to my son, who doesn’t like fish, the little fillets, when they’re broken down really impart a salty, slightly meaty depth rather than a fish taste. The Italians use them quite often in this way, for instance, in Pasta alla Puttanesca, and in UK they’re are found in Gentleman’s Relish and Worcestershire Sauce.

First of all, get your pasta (about 100g) cooking in a large pan of salted water, cooking it fast in roiling water which prevents the starch breaking down and the pasta becoming sticky.  When al dente (retaining just a slight bite), and keeping some of the cooking water, drain and set aside. Cut the florets from a head of broccoli (about 350g) and put into a pan of salted boiling water to more or less blanch for only about 2-3 minutes so they are beginning to become tender but are still a lovely bright green and retain a slight bite. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, put about 2 tablespoons olive oil in a pan with 6 anchovy fillets from a tin, and some dried chilli flakes and finely chopped garlic (according to your taste!). You’ll find the anchovies soon break down as you crush them with a wooden spoon and sauce soon forms. Cook for only a minute or two; don’t overheat and overcook. Turn off the heat. Then add the drained broccoli florets and mix thoroughly so the florets are coated in the sauce.

Then add the drained pasta with a little of the cooking water and stir everything together. You could get two servings from this, or one hungry portion and a smaller portion left over as perhaps some pasta salad for lunch the next day – or just cook a little more pasta for two hungry people. Spoon a portion into a dish, drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil and grate over some Parmesan cheese.

It’s the easiest of suppers to prepare but absolutely delicious. Broccoli has a bitter-sweet taste that I like but if it’s overcooked it can become unpleasant. In this dish the broccoli was just cooked and retained some bite (i.e. was not cooked to a mush); cooked just enough to go with the pasta and be easily digestible, but retaining its essential flavour and freshness. The saltiness of the anchovies marries with it well and topped with some fruity olive oil and a good helping of Parmesan, it’s a stunningly simple but delicious supper.

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

3 thoughts on “Pasta with Broccoli, Anchovy & Chilli

  1. I find it intriguing how people who are not Italian like their vegetables to be ‘crisp’ even when it comes to Italian dishes. There is no right or wrong to what I am saying, and I am not criticising … I am writing this only because I think it is culinarily of ‘anthropological’ interest. Eastern Asian stir-fried vegetables are the hallmark and golden standard of how crisp vegetables should be enjoyed. In the Italian cuisine, however, it is definitely not normal to have ‘crisp’ vegetables in your pasta sauces. The sauce is supposed to be creamy or tomato-ey and/or oily and enveloping. The spare bits of the broccoletti, as well as the stems and leaves, are thrown into the pasta water, the broccoli are cooked in it until they are tender (not crisp) and then removed … and the pasta thrown in last, in a cooking water that has been enriched by the vegetables and has gone a slight green colour. Broccoli are sometimes ‘drowned’ in wine too (broccoli imbriachi) and squashed with a fork into a somewhat mushy consistency. Repeat: I am not criticising, just noticing differences. Vive la différence ! and your pasta with broccoli sounds delicious!

    1. Hi Jo and no criticism taken – I think these comments should be an exchange of ideas and not just a ‘your post is great’ comment. However, I have made a couple of little editorial tweeks to my post to be a bit clearer about what I meant, i.e. the broccoli cooked through but not so it’s breaking up into a mush and still has a slight bite, and I do blanch first to achieve this as it wouldn’t cook at all is the short time it’s in a small amount of anchovy sauce. I’m not really claiming this as ‘Italian’ and certainly if I was doing an ‘Italian’ ragu then I’d cook my vegetables well so there weren’t, e.g., crisp carrots in my Bolognese! The broccoli in this recipe isn’t really a sauce but more about a way to eat and enjoy broccoli. I think it’s a fine line with cooking al dente between ‘just right’ and ‘undercooked’ and getting it right is a combination of practice and personal preference, but I wouldn’t want mushy broccoli in a recipe like this.

  2. I wouldn’t want mushy broccoli in this recipe either!!! So let’s disseminate our new motto:” let us never rush to turn broccoli into mush!” And re blanching (and the importance of salt and a high boil) … it’s just the best of techniques, isn’t it and not mentioned very often … sort of taken for granted.

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