Orecchiette con cime di rapa, salsiccia, e pangrattato

I have a distinct memory of a conversation with my second grade classmates, where Elliot M. -- class troublemaker, for the record -- excitedly told his audience of fellow 8 year olds that his mom was taking him to Applebee's for a dinner of chicken fingers and fries. This was a big deal -- what kid doesn't love fried chicken and potatoes, right? -- and sparked a conversation among us about what the rest of our moms would probably make for dinner. The answers were numerous; hamburgers! grilled cheese! steak! When it was my turn, I told them all about the pasta my mom was going to make, with my nonna's ragu', and lots of Parmesan. "Pasta?" remarked one. "We never eat pasta in my house." "Me neither!" said another. I was baffled. At my house, we ate pasta all the time -- we loved pasta! We had a whole cabinet dedicated to pasta in my kitchen, filled with not just spaghetti but also linguine and farfalle and gemelli; at only 8, I knew that pasta should be cooked in salted water and only until it reached al dente; my favorite shape was rigatoni. I didn't know that there were people who didn't eat pasta, and that day, I remember thinking: how lucky was I to be able to eat glorious, glorious pasta, any time I wanted?

I can't remember a time I didn't adore pasta, and it has, strange as it sounds, played a part in many of my nicest memories in my (nearly!) 30 years so far: my grandmother's tomato sauce over spaghetti; comforting bowls of pastina in broth when I was sick with a cold; making lasagna with my nonno at Christmas; discovering tortellini in Bologna, and bucatini all'amatriciana in Rome; learning that gnocchetti sardi weren't at all gnocchi, but shell-shaped pasta, during a summer trip to Sardinia; dining on agnolotti al plin in Torino with my dad; learning to make fresh ravioli with Carla Tomasi not so long ago. And these are just a few! I could go on and on, which is pretty remarkable given that pasta in itself is a pretty simple deal, just a little bit of flour egg and and water, without much flavor of its own to speak of. That being said, it's exactly this blank-canvas quality that makes it so versatile, that allows it to tangle up with a paired down olive oil and garlic as easily as it does with rich egg yolks and guanciale, and similarly, fits in to all sorts of instances and memories in my own life thus far, if that makes sense -- pasta for me is everything from my go-to get-well dish to my most nostalgic lunch tradition with my grandparents to a cooking class with one of my favorite people. In short: pasta knows no boundaries, my friends. 

So! My history with pasta is long and rich, and deliciously varied, and continues to flourish in the present (living in Italy definitely encourages this). Today's orecchiette is one of my new favorite pasta dishes, one that I ate alongside my sister on a rainy Sunday in Rome at the beginning of the new year. This is a dish that's got everything, a perfect 10 in my books: there's a bit of heat from the chili and and a subtle flavor boost from the garlic; the sausage adds richness and meatiness that is balanced out nicely by the bitter greens, all captured and held by the orecchiette. The whole thing is tied together beautifully with a shower of freshly grated Parmesan and a good handful of crispy, crunchy, garlicky-spicy breadcrumbs, and eaten all together, it's a true pasta masterpiece, one I'll be adding to my regular rotation for sure. Whatever your history with pasta, storied or not -- pleaseeee do yourself a favor and make this.

A couple of notes: I used orecchiette here because they're one of my favorite shapes but use whatever pasta you like best. You can use either spicy or sweet sausage. If I had had some wine hanging around I'd probably have added a splash of it to the pan to deglaze it after I cooked the sausage - will try this next time. A little bit of lemon zest mixed in with the breadcrumb mixture is also lovely. If for some reason you want a side instead of a main, you can leave out the pasta and sausage here; the cime di rapa and breadcrumbs make for a lovely side alone. Finally, you can substitute broccoli or any other green you like for the broccoli rabe, if you prefer.

Looking for other recipes with leafy greens? I've got this scarola e fagioli, this chickpea, kale, and sausage soup, this cicoria ripassata alla romana, this torta pasqualina, this spaghetti with garlicky greens, and this turkey, spinach, and white bean soup. Looking for another pasta/breadcrumbs recipe?! Of course you were! I've got this pasta con tonno, pangrattato, e limone

Serves 4

Olive oil
4 sausages
400 grams (a little less than a pound) broccoli rabe 
4 cloves of garlic
Dried or fresh chili or chili flakes (I used dried chilis)
1 cup (60 grams) bread
300 grams pasta orecchiette or dried pasta of your choice
Parmesan cheese or this homemade ricotta for serving

Prepare the broccoli rabe; cut the leaves and broccoli from the stems and put in a bowl. Next, peel the stems and chop them up, and add them to the bowl. Rinse the broccoli rabe off an set aside. 
Next, remove the sausage from their casings and break in to smaller pieces. Coat a large skillet with a little olive oil and cook the sausage until well-browned and cooked throughout. Let the sausage drain on a paper-towel lined plate and set aside.

While your sausage cooks, work on the breadcrumbs. Using a food processor, process the bread until it turns in to breadcrumbs. Heat a good amount of olive oil (3 or so tablespoons) 2 cloves of garlic and a dried chili in a medium skillet over medium-low heat until you can start to smell the garlic. Add the breadcrumbs to the pan, and cook them until toasty and golden brown. Discard the garlic cloves and chili. Set aside.

Pour most of the fat from the sausage out of the skillet and put it back on the stove. Add a little extra olive oil to the pan if needed and add your remaining garlic cloves and a chili. As you did with the breadcrumbs, Sautee the garlic and chili in the oil until fragrant, and then add the broccoli rabe. It may seem like a lot of greens, but they'll cook down quite fast. In the meantime, cook your pasta according to package instructions for al dente pasta.

Cook the broccoli rabe for 10 minutes, adding a few tablespoons of water if you'd like to help the greens wilt. Season the broccoli rabe with a little salt (keeping in mind the sausage might be on the salty side) and then add the sausage back to the pan. 
Heat the sausage throughout along with the greens. Remove the garlic cloves from the pan and discard. Toss your cooked pasta with the sausage and greens mixture, then serve sprinkled with a good amount of breadcrumbs and a generous grating of Parmesan cheese -- or, if you're lucky, a dollop of that homemade ricotta I told you about last week. Enjoy!

Homemade Ricotta

Happy (belated) New Year, everyone! After 2 weeks in the U.S I'm back in Rome and in the throws of jetlag -- so much so that the barista greeted me with buonasera when I went to get my morning cappuccino, whoops -- but thankfully, I'm not due back at work until January 14th. I'm happy to be back in the Eternal City, but no trip back is ever free of mixed feelings, and this time around, they were 10x more so. At nearly 30, I am fortunate to still have both of my paternal grandparents -- Nonna Ada is 92, Nonno Jim is 97 -- and I've been lucky, spoiled even, because for the most part, neither one has ever shown much sign of their age. My nonna is sharp as a tack, switching from English to Italian with ease, making bread from scratch with authority, and giving hugs with a fierceness that you wouldn't think possible from such a tiny lady. She's doing well. 

My Nonno Jim is one of the most interesting, engaging, and wonderful people you'll ever meet. He made the journey to the tiny state of Rhode Island from the even tinier town of Grotteria (Calabria) when he was only 14 years old; the trip on the boat lasted 9 days, and he was alone. He joined his father in the U.S, where he worked in the family grocery store, attended American high school, went from being called Vincenzo to Vincent to Jim, and adjusted to life in his new country. And adjust he did; by the time he was 28, he'd founded his own company, Supreme Dairy Farms, which specialized in making Italian cheeses, with ricotta being their biggest seller. Given the many Italian immigrants in Rhode Island, plus pizzerie and Italian restaurants, there was a good market for these products, and the company took off. Nonno Jim owned and very successfully ran his business up until he was 85 years old, and true businessman that he is, loved every minute of it. He is the epitome of the American Dream, and I have told his story to anyone who will listen more times than I can count.  

In the present day, we Skype from his IPad (from letter writing to Skype -- how much he's witnessed!) and during our catch ups, he is eager to hear how work is going for me and my sister, what we've had for dinner, where we're planning to travel next. He loves to watch La Prova del Cuoco on RAI, knows more about Italian politics than the average Italian, and ardently hates Trump; at 97 his teeth are perfect, he has a good amount of hair, and the prescription in his glasses is far less than mine. His memory is incredible -- he can tell you all about his school band back in Calabria where he played the piccolo, his first moments in America, the first time he drove a car -- and he's always had the mind of someone my age rather than his. Given all this, his recent stints in and out of the hospital and now a sudden decline in his health -- including his memory and ability to speak and eat -- have been startling for all of us, jarring. He has always been a source of inspiration and confidence for me (if he had the courage to cross the ocean all alone on a boat, I can be brave enough to do anything!) and his story is, by now, a part of who I am. When in Rhode Island, I visited him nearly every day -- and, I'm happy to report, many of those days were good days for him -- but leaving him this time was difficult, far more painful than it usually is. 

I had a few ideas about what my first post of 2019 would be -- cold weather friendly lentil stew? cardamom scented cinnamon buns? cozy risotto? -- but in the end, after my visit home, I knew that I wanted to make ricotta, just like my nonno used to do. As I followed the recipe -- measured the temperature of the milk, stirred in the lemon juice, strained out the whey -- I thought a lot about him. Sure, he had made his ricotta in the U.S, and I was making mine in Italy, the very country he had left, and he had made huge batches of it every day to sell, while I was making just a small portion. But still, I felt a lot closer to him, knowing that he had carried out the same steps, and that something as simple as ricotta -- a humble, flexible cheese, so unlike over-the-top burrata or super sharp Parmesan -- had brought him so much in his adopted country. I think he would be pretty darn proud of the ricotta his granddaughter made, too -- this recipe made for ricotta that was rich and creamy and perfectly smooth, lovely eaten on toasted bread with a drizzle of olive oil, or a handful of sundried tomatoes, or along side these pickled zucchine, or dolloped on pasta -- the possibilities, I found, are endless. My favorite, however? Spread on toast and drizzled with honey and a grind or two of black pepper. I think my Nonno would approve.

This post is for you, Nonno Jim. I love you!

A couple of notes: The recipe as originally written calls for the 4 cups of whole milk; however, to make it a little richer and smoother, Deb Perelman suggests substituting some of that milk with heavy cream, which is not exactly traditional, but downright delicious (my nonno was intrigued by this addition). I liked this ricotta better with the cream than I did with all milk, but the choice is up to you. This is fresh cheese, so shouldn't be kept in the fridge too long, probably just 2 or so days. That being said, I have no idea how long it lasts, as we've gobbled up most every batch we've made (4 so far)!

Recipe from Tasting Table via Smitten Kitchen.
Makes 1 generous cup.

3 1/2 cups (875 ml) whole milk
1/2 cup (125 ml) heavy cream 
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Pour the milk, cream and salt into a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan. Attach a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Heat the milk to 190°F (that would be about 88 degrees Celsius) stirring it occasionally to keep it from scorching on the bottom. 
Remove the pot from heat and add the lemon juice, then slowly stir it once or twice. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 5 minutes. Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl (to catch the whey). Pour the curds and whey into the colander and let the curds strain for at least an hour. Smitten Kitchen note: At an hour, you’ll have a tender, spreadable ricotta. At two hours, it will be spreadable but a bit firmer, almost like cream cheese. It will firm as it cools, so do not judge its final texture by what you have in your cheesecloth. 
Discard the whey, or, if you're crafty, use it for something else (I myself will be using mine to make bread; stay tuned). Eat the ricotta right away or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use.