Farro Strozzapreti with Broccoli Rabe, Hot Cappacola, and Fennel Seeds
Pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage is one of my all-time favorite dishes going back to childhood, a Southern Italian classic that I still indulge in from time to time. But I’ve found a much less bloating alternative to the fatty pork sausage and tons of olive oil I generally like to throw into it. I’ve replaced the sausage with capacolla, a lean but extremely flavorful air-dried pork shoulder that originated in Calabria (in Northern Italy it’s called coppa). With capacolla I can get a rich pork taste without all the grease. And the great thing about this pasta is that it’s in no way a compromise. Capacolla isn’t a substitute for sausage but an elegant product on its own that makes for a pasta loaded with authentic Southern Italian flavor. And I include a little reminder of the original dish by including fennel seeds in the mix, a palate-teasing trick, but a good one.
How do I get an ample moisture coating for the pasta without all the pork fat, you ask. Instead of the sausage and gallon of olive oil I’d have been tempted to add in the past, I get liquid flavor with a quick splash of brandy and a ladle of chicken broth. I then add a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil right before bringing the pasta to the table, so the oil’s flavor stays intense, undiminished by cooking.
Now to address the main issue here, the pasta. The problem with pasta, as I see it, is the way it’s digested quickly, turning into sugar and getting inconveniently stored as blubber on my butt and thighs. I hate that, but I’ll be damned if I’ll give up pasta. Whole-grain pasta digests more slowly than the refined white flour kind, making it better for regulating blood sugar and fat metabolism. But I have to admit, whole-grain pastas used to really turn me off, tasting of the musty health food store. But I’ve been sampling a lot of them lately, and I’ve found really good ones with good texture and beautiful nutty flavor. Latini, maybe my all-time favorite pasta maker, turns out amazing farro and single-grain pasta that can be purchased through http://www.gustiamo.com, a great Italian food website. Martelli produces a wheat-germ pasta that I really love. As I write, it’s out of stock at Gustiamo, but I’m hoping they’ll get a new shipment in soon. Buonitalia.com carries Monterosso whole wheat pasta, a very good brand with good texture. Another excellent farro pasta, one with a pronounced wheat taste, is made by Giacomo Santoleri in Abruzzo. I buy it at Italian grocery stores in New York, but it’s also available through http://www.agferrari.com. (One whole wheat brand I’m not crazy about is Barilla, which always cooks up slightly crumbly.) These nutty, robust pastas taste best paired with a bold sauce like the capacolla-based one I’ve chosen here (they’re also excellent with anchovies, as you’ll discover in an upcoming Skinny Guinea post).
My new philosophy about pasta is that I eat it only about once a week (as opposed to once a day, more or less). I now try to pair my pasta with a fish or meat sauce so I get protein with my starch (another excellent way to de-sugar your body), and I try to eat whole grain pasta more than white flour types. It hasn’t been a hard transition at all. In fact, it’s a pleasure.
What to eat with this dish: Since this is what I and many Southern Italians would consider a main course pasta, I would start with a few black olives and possibly a Cynar and soda, and then follow the pasta with a simple green salad, one with gentle lettuce such as Bibb, Boston, or mache, since I’ve already gotten a hit of bitter with the broccoli rabe. I like a mix of Boston and mache tossed with olive oil and lemon juice and a handful of toasted pine nuts. I now forgo bread when I’m having pasta, finding it starch overload, but I’d have a glass of good Sicilian Nero d’Avolo with this, a great match with spicy cured meat. And don’t forget a big glass of water (it takes up a lot of room in your stomach, leaving no place for a sugary dessert, which is not a great thing after a pasta meal (dessert makes more sense after a higher protein meal; more on that in future posts).
(Serves 4 as a main course)
2 bunches broccoli rabe, well stemmed and roughly chopped
1 pound farro strozzapreti
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
A small palmful of fennel seeds
A splash of cognac or brandy
1/2 cup homemade chicken broth (or use a high-quality commercial stock; I like the frozen ones put out by D’Artagnan)
8 very thin slices hot capacolla, cut into thin strips
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
A small chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese for grating
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Add the broccoli rabe, and blanch it for a minute. Scoop it from the water with a large strainer spoon into a colander, and run it under cold water to stop the cooking and to preserve its nice green color. Squeeze out all the excess moisture.
Bring the pasta water back to a boil, and add a generous amount of salt. Drop in the strozzapreti, and give them a quick little stir to make sure they’re not sticking together.
In a skillet large enough to hold all the pasta and sauce ingredients, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, and sauté until just starting to turn golden, about a minute. Add the broccoli rabe, seasoning with salt and the fennel seeds, and sauté for about 2 minutes (this is an important step, as it will bring out the sweetness of the vegetable and release the flavor from the fennel seeds). Add a splash of brandy or cognac, and let it boil out completely. Add the chicken broth and the capacolla, and simmer for about a minute longer (you don’t want to cook a cured meat too much or it might loose some of its delicacy). There should be a little liquid left in the skillet.
When al dente, drain the strozzapreti and add it to the skillet. Add the lemon zest, and toss well over medium heat, to coat the pasta and blend all the flavors (this skillet toss is essential for creating deep flavor in the pasta, and it also allows you to use less oil, since everything gets so well mixed and coated). Turn off the heat, add a drizzle of fresh olive oil and a tablespoon of grated pecorino, and toss briefly (this final step will really boost flavor). Taste for salt, adding a little if needed, and transfer to a warmed serving bowl. Serve right away, bringing the remaining pecorino to the table to grate on top.