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Apulian Cooking
Orecchiette with broccoli rabe A dish from long ago, it is cooked in many different ways… by Dario Ersetti
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Photo by Dario Ersetti

 

      One theory says that orecchiette originated in the area of Sannicandro di Bari, during the Norman-Swabian domination, between the XII and the XIII centuries. Another says that they come from Provence, where, in the Middle Ages, they produced crosets, a form of pasta slightly resembling the orecchietta. These were then taken to the area around Bari by the Angevins in about the XIII century. Some of the more imaginative of hypotheses have it that their shape derives from that of the roofs of the trulli.

      It is often difficult to get to the origins of a custom or a dish. For the purists we can safely say that the Provencal crosets were a form of dried pasta and that these days eggs are included as one of their ingredients.

      However, whatever their origins, orecchiette have found the perfect territory for themselves in the traditions and cuisine of Apulia and neighbouring Lucania, where they have become a distinguishing feature.

 

Making orecchiette

      Bari-style orecchiette are made with durum wheat bran, water and salt, while those made in Salento are made from semi-wholemeal durum wheat, water and salt. The Bari-style ones are smaller and thinner and are of an amber-yellow color due to the bran, whereas those made in Salento are bigger, thicker and of a grey-white color.

      Work the flour with a little water and a pinch of salt until you obtain a smooth, soft homogenous dough. From the dough, pull out little pieces of about one third of an inch in diameter. Slowly cut the pieces of pasta so as to get a sort of gnocchetto. With the rounded point of a knife blade squash and drag them, one by one, on the pastry board At this point you will have created strascinati, another traditional type of pasta. If, by using the tip of your thumb on the other hand, you turn the bit of pasta inside out, you obtain the typical shape of the orecchietta. The pasta is laid out to dry on a fine mesh metal frame, and placed in a cool, airy position. It can be eaten fresh, but it is even better after a couple of days of desiccation.

      If you haven’t got the time to make your own home-made orecchiette, in Apulia there are many excellent shops which make and sell hand-made fresh pasta.

 

Broccoli rabe

      There are several varieties of rabe, which differ according to their precocity: quarantina, sessantina, novantina and centoventina. In the South of Italy, they are harvested from late Fall to the end of March, whereas in the North the harvest is interrupted by the first winter frosts, and so the more precocious variety is used.

      For the recipe for orecchiette with broccoli rabe tips the inflorescences are used with the smaller leaves and the most tender stalks of the Brassica rapa, of the Crucifer or Brassica family. Apart from the differing period of flowering, there are two types of broccoli rabe: the Bari type with a tougher stalk and lots of leaves and the Neapolitan broccoli rabe tips (known also as friarielli) with a more tender stalk than the ones from Bari and so these are eaten whole.

 

Recipe

      The dishes of the so-called “poor cooking” or local cooking vary from place to place or even from family to family. Maybe orecchiette with broccoli rabe tips is the most differentiated; so much so that at one extreme we have a perfectly healthy dish whereas at the other we fry as much as possible.

 

4 servings:

 

- 1 lb. orecchiette

- 1 lb. broccoli rabe tips

- 5 tablespoonsful of extra virgin olive oil

- salt

- freshly ground black pepper

- 3 cloves of garlic

- 5 anchovy fillets

- chilli pepper

- 2 oz. grated ricotta tosta or pecorino (ewe’s milk cheese)

 

      Throw the pasta into a pan full of salted boiling water…after a few minutes add the broccoli rabe. Once this is cooked drain and add a little extra-virgin olive oil. This is the simplest and healthiest version.

      You can sprinkle the dish with a little freshly ground pepper. You can use oil with a couple of anchovies and a couple of garlic cloves fried golden brown and dissolved in it, instead of the cold oil.

      To heighten the taste even more you can, instead of boiling the broccoli rabe with the pasta, you can soften them in a frying pan with plenty of oil, a couple of salted anchovies, two cloves of garlic and some chilli pepper. Drain the pasta while it is still al dente and warm it up again in the pan with the broccoli rabe.

      Yet another recipe says that before cooking them in the frying pan the broccoli rabe should be boiled in salted water which will then be used to cook the orecchiette in.

      Lastly, perhaps the oldest recipe. In this land of olive groves only the nobility used to be able to use the oil, so the peasants used to flavour their orecchiette and broccoli rabe, after cooking, with cubes of lard that had been gently melted over a slow flame.

      But however you cook this dish you can always add a sprinkling of grated ricotta tosta (a ricotta cheese that has been left to dry and then often baked in the oven) or a sprinkling of grated pecorino (ewe’s milk cheese). 

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