Vegetables in both old and modern Italian culture are a very important ingredient, almost more so than any other. The abundance and variety of fresh and even unusual vegetables in each season at a low-cost to la famiglia (many of which cultivated them in their own garden (giardino) was the feature in many dishes we know of today from “la cucina povera“.
NOTE: La cucina povera basically means “kitchen of the poor” or “peasant cooking” best recognized by Italia and the world as those who lived with little means, most likely affected by war and the hard times that followed.
These people worked together to learn and combine creatively the minimal ingredients and flavors readily available that they would then cook into hearty rustic meals to feed an entire famiglia.
This age-old philosophy found in many cultures is simply about making do with what you have to transform humble ingredients into dishes that are not only good, but surprisingly exquisite. Today, dishes from la cucina povera are found in some of the most expensive restaurants, as any chef worth his salt has learned to understand and appreciate the simplicity, and layers of flavor found in this humble style of cooking.
I will be sharing recipes from la cucina povera from my famiglia’s history and from other regions of Italia where some of my favorite dishes originate, like panzanella (tomato & bread salad) from Tuscany and Umbria, eggplant caponata from Sicily and organic cured pig backfat (lardo) made in the small village of Colonnata (Tuscany.)
This recipe is a popular dish in my home and one that I think is a perfect example of what la cucina povera represents to me and my famiglia. Traditionally, the pasta shape for this dish is orrecchiette (Italian for “little ears”.) I find the dry version of this pasta shape too thick and heavy for my taste (someday I will attempt to make a homemade orrecchiette.) Pappardelle noodles are thinner and my famiglia prefers them in this dish that works beautifully on a busy weeknight.
One of my famiglia’s favorite vegetables, broccoli rabe or rapini (cime de rapa), is key to the delicious flavor base of this dish. Broccoli rabe are a slightly bitter green that Mammina Loreta and the women in our famiglia prepared as often as they could, both in season, and then freezing them for the fall and winter months when fresh broccoli rabe were no longer available.
We cook and serve this vegetable as a side dish at many of our meals, so follow this recipe on how to prepare them. Broccoli rabe can be added to any meal, especially wonderful with grilled meats (steak, pork, lamb or sausage) or chicken for a burst of flavor and tons of healthy nutrients for your family.
NOTE: I love to add sauteed broccoli rabe to sandwiches as a flavorful topping with any leftover grilled meat and a glass of wine. Use a good quality Italian bread like ciabatta or rustic bread here that is savory and hearty enough to hold together this mix of ingredients.
salsiccia e cime di rapa con pappardelle
1-1 1/2 lb. fresh Italian pork fennel sausage
1/2 to 3/4 cup white wine 1-2 bunches
1-2 bunches fresh broccoli rabe, cleaned, trimmed and cut into pieces
2-3 garlic cloves
salt and pepper to taste
red pepper chili flakes to taste
freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
homemade egg pappardelle pasta (about 3/4 to 1 lb.)
Follow my homemade pasta recipe; mix the dough and let it rest as noted. Using your pasta machine, roll the dough into thin sheets and then cut the individual sheets into medium to wide pappardelle shape noodle (if your machine does not have this wide noodle setting, you can cut them by hand using a metal ruler as a guide; be sure to keep the noodles at about the same width for ease of cooking and eating.) Set aside to dry and rest; dust generously with flour to keep from sticking.
NOTE: My pasta dough recipe makes about a pound or so of fresh noodles; you may not want to include all the noodles in this dish, so you can use only part of the recipe to keep a balance of noodle to sausage and broccoli rabe.
Italians estimate the amount of pasta needed for a meal by the amount of eggs in the pasta dough (one egg for each guest.) The best way is to simply make the pasta and decide how much your family eats and the ratio of noodle to ingredients that you prefer. My famiglia prefers less noodle, more ingredients so do what works best for you.
Heat a tall medium to large pot of water on the stove and wash, trim and cut the broccoli rabe into small pieces. Once the water is boiling; add the broccoli rabe and blanch for about 2-3 minutes at the most. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and let drain. Set the pot of water aside for later use.
NOTE: If you wish to freeze broccoli rabe for future use; once drained place them in freezer storage bags or containers (add a bit of the boiled water to keep moist) and then thaw as needed and prepare as noted here.
Remove the sausage meat from the casings and brown the loose meat in a skillet with a drizzle of olive oil. Once slightly browned, remove and set aside. With an extra drizzle of oil, add a few sliced garlic cloves and sauté until you can smell the aroma: do not fry or brown.
Remove the garlic and discard; add the blanched broccoli rabe and sauté in the seasoned oil for a few minutes (add a bit of the leftover water to aid in the cooking.); season with salt and pepper to taste. Take the browned sausage meat and about half of the white wine and add this in to the broccoli rabe; sauté for about 2 to 3 minutes allowing the alcohol to burn off (add more wine if you think it needs more liquid, looks too dry.) Saute for a few more minutes and remove from the heat.
Return the pot of water back to the stove and let come to a boil. Add salt to the water and once boiling, add in the fresh pappardelle noodles and cook for only a few minutes until tender (fresh pasta can cook very quickly compared to dry; check it often and drain the noodles when done. Be sure to reserve the water; set aside.
Using a large deep skillet, add the cooked pappardelle noodles, the sauteed sausage and the broccoli rabe on medium heat and mix well, being careful not to break the noodles. Add some of the broccoli rabe and pasta cooking water (just enough to moisten the mixture and allow it to cook together) and cook until the liquid has reduced a bit.
Serve immediately with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to share tableside and a good quality red wine to accompany this simple and gratifying meal.
Note: Photography provided by Annette L. Venditti