This is a classic Italian winter dish. I really like to make it when it is cold outside, because the pasta is creamy and filling. I also like to use spicy sausage instead of mild, or blend in a proportion of both. Broccoli rabe is the classic vegetable used in Italy, but regular broccoli or an alternate like kale or peas is also fine. I’ve also seen a variation with cooked tomatoes that was especially delicious. In truth, rather than being a purist, I embrace my grandmother’s philosophy of cleaning out the vegetable drawer with what is on hand. There is a lot of variety to the dish, but what is below is closest to the classic version. This will feed around 5 to 6 people. Feel free to ramp up the butter and/or cheese if you want something more decadent.
Many non-Italians are not used to incorporating pasta water, but I highly recommend it, as it helps add creaminess to the overall dish. Also, make sure to salt your pasta water:) Fresh grated cheese really makes a huge difference. There are debates about which cheese is canon, but I personally prefer a blend of Asiago & Parmesan.
You will need:
- 1 pound orecchiette
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings (or spicy, if you prefer)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3/4 cup chicken broth
- 1/4 reserve pasta water
- broccoli florets or kale
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 4-5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Asiago, Pecorino Romano, or Parmesan ( I personally use a blend of Asiago & Parmesan)
Make sure to salt your water for the pasta with kosher salt. If you cannot find orecchiette, substitute small shells. Cook the pasta al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/4 cup of the cooking water to set aside.
Once you have the pasta started, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large sauté pan and add the sausage. Cook, breaking the meat up with a spoon, until the sausage starts to brown, 5-6 minutes.
Add the garlic and cook a minute more. Season the meat with salt & red pepper flakes. Remove the meat from pan. Add the reserve pasta water, remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, broccoli, chicken broth. Cook, stirring frequently, until the broccoli is tender-crisp, 3-4 minutes.
Stir in the butter until melted and simmer for a few minutes to reduce and concentrate the sauce. Add the sausage back in.
Add the cooked and drained pasta and toss well.
Fresh grated cheese really makes a difference here. It is really worth the extra step and effort. However, if you have to substitute it’s not the end of the world. If you can’t find Asiago or Romano, it’s fine to substitute Parmigiano Reggiano.