This is how I felt when I tasted my first plate of orecchiette con cime di rapa. I was sitting in the Puglian town of Lecce (in the south-east of Italy) with my dear friend Bea, the sun was shining for the first time in weeks and I had that satisfied feeling of being completely free from everything I knew and really in holiday mode.
From the kitchen of a family-run bistro came a simple-looking pasta dish covered in breadcrumbs. To my eyes it didn’t look like much, but on my first mouthful I knew I was a goner. Homemade pasta tossed with a smooth sauce of slightly bitter greens, perfectly salted, and with a hint of chilli and the bite of garlic. Combine this with the slight crunch of breadcrumbs and this may well have been tastebud heaven.
Orecchiette con cime di rapa is one of Puglia’s signature dishes and I can see why. I thought it would have been made with some super gourmet ingredient, but when Bea replied “turnip tops” to my question of what it was, I was slightly taken aback. Excuse me? Really? The discarded greens of possibly the most boring vegetable on earth…*
After I got over my initial incredulity, I was impressed that a humble green could make such a dish. From then on I became a little obsessed. Yes, this usually non-eating-pasta-girl was officially on a mission to try cime di rapa as many times as she could.
Well, that turned into three times (due to all the other incredible food at my fingertips), but I also got to try cime di rape as a pesto, which made some of the best semi-sundried tomatoes I’ve ever eaten sing. And the more I ate it, the more the translation of ‘turnip tops’ came to confuse me. In a cave restaurant in haunting Matera, the cime di rapa wasn’t made into a sauce, and I could see what looked like pieces of broccolini throughout the pasta. Poor Bea, she must have thought me mad when I kept asking her, are you sure it means turnip tops?
It wasn’t until I returned home and tracked some down in an Italian greengrocer that I realised cime di rapa isn’t turnip tops as such, but rapini or broccoli rabe (or raab). It’s a cruciferous vegetable of the Brassicaceae family, and is in the same subspecies as the turnip, hence the translation.
This pretty green with yellow flowers and broccolini-type florets is now a firm favourite, and I’m sure it can be used as a replacement to spinach or other favoured greens. Luckily it’s available year round, though its heyday is between autumn and spring. You may only find it in an Italian greengrocer, however, as I went to a number of places but only found it there.
*Sorry turnips, I don’t know you very well but I’ve watched too many episodes of Blackadder to think of you as any different.
orecchiette con cime di rapa
In Lecce, the cime di rapa was served more as a sauce, while in Matera the leaves were cooked but stirred through the pasta. Both were magnificent. But I have an aversion to overcooking greens so have based the below recipe on a version from epicurious.com that is similar to how I ate it in Matera. I can’t believe how good it turned out to be.
If you try this dish in Italy make sure you ask for it without anchovies, as some recipes do use them. You could also try the sauce with non-wheat pasta, or as a side with rice or quinoa.
1 bunch of broccoli rabe
250gm dried orecchiette
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for breadcrumbs
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon chilli or red pepper flakes (or to taste)
⅓ cup fresh breadcrumbs*
optional: freshly grated Pecorino Romano
- Prepare the rabe by pulling the leaves off the stems. You can leave the flower heads on the top.
- Peel the stems by pulling the outer layer up in strips from the base to the flower heads. Like a broccoli, the outer skin can be easily peeled off to reveal its tender part underneath. Add to the leaves and wash in cold water.
- Put a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil.
- While this is boiling, Heat a healthy glug of olive oil in your frypan and heat. Add the breadcrumbs and stir so they are evenly coated. Fry these until they are crunchy and golden. Set aside.
- Once the water has boiled, add the broccoli rabe and stir to submerge. Cook uncovered until the rabe is tender and deep green in colour (around 4-5 minutes).
- Using a slotted spoon or tongs, lift the greens out of the water and place into a colander. Run them under cold water and drain. Gently squeeze out any excess water then roughly chop.
- Using the same water, make sure it’s boiling and add the orecchiette, stirring every now and then to make sure the pasta isn’t sticking together.
- While the pasta is cooking, warm the oil in a large frypan. Add the garlic and sauté, stirring frequently until light golden in color.
- Then add the chilli or red pepper flakes and the blanched broccoli rabe. I found the stems weren’t that well cooked so added spoonful’s of the cooking water as needed to make is softer.
- Once cooked, drain the orecchiette in a colander, shaking well to remove excess water, then add it the broccoli rabe.
- Stir well to coat the pasta with the sauce then serve immediately.
Serve the pasta garnished with breadcrumbs and cheese if you’re using
* To make fresh breadcrumbs simply put 2 slices of old bread in a coffee grinder or food processor and grind until in crumbs. Bought packets of breadcrumbs are like cardboard and have chemicals in them to stop them clumping, so I just keep all the ends or broken bits of my bread in the freezer and defrost these when I need them.