Every time I cook this dish, I’m reminded that in all my years of living in New York City, I never managed to get a reservation at Rao’s Italian restaurant in Harlem. It’s a tiny little place that was started by Italian immigrant Charles Rao in 1896, and it is still going strong. I have a well-worn copy of their cookbook, Rao’s Cookbook, filled with recipes for delicious home-style Italian dishes that I find irresistible. One of my favorites is the Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage.
Broccoli rabe is a curious vegetable. The buds look like broccoli, but it has a much stronger, more distinctive taste. I looked it up and its in the Brassicaceae family, a category of flowering plants informally known as mustard flowers. That explains its nutty, spicy bite.
Blanching is an easy and useful technique for preparing greens for sautéing in any recipe. The quick boiling water bath softens them just a bit and brings out their best and brightest green color. Shocking them with ice water puts an immediate stop to the cooking process, preventing them from getting mushy, overcooked, and dull-looking. You can then give them a quick toss in a pan with garlic and oil and spices and they are ready to eat.
I love the mix of flavors in this recipe – the rich meaty sausage with the sweet, spicy garlic and bitter broccoli rabe and the salty, sharp accents of the pecorino.
Will I ever get to experience this dish at Rao’s Restaurant on East 114th street in New York City? Probably not. Rao’s is considered one of the hardest New York City restaurants to get into. They only have ten tables and apparently are so devoted to their local and long-standing customers that they are like a private club. You need to know somebody who knows somebody who has an in, and even then you might wait a year or two for your seat.
- 1 pound of broccoli rabe (1 bunch)
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 5 garlic cloves - 1 clove peeled and thickly sliced, 4 cloves peeled and chopped
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 pound Italian sausage, (about 4) a mix of sweet and hot, to your taste, casings removed, cut into bite-size pieces.
- 1 cup of broccoli rabe water - reserved from when you pre-cook the broccoli rabe
- salt and pepper, to taste
- I pound orecchiette pasta
- Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly-grated
- Pre-Cook the Broccoli Rabe: Cut away thicker tough stems. Tear leaves into large pieces. Rinse. Place broccoli rabe in a saucepan. Add cold water to cover. Bring to a simmer over high heat. Remove from heat the minute the water starts to bubble. Reserve one cup of the cooking water, then drain the rest of the water and quickly plunge broccoli rabe into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain and set aside.
- Heat olive oil, sliced garlic clove and red pepper flakes in a large skillet on medium-low heat. When garlic is barely simmering and just starting to turn golden, remove and discard the garlic slices. (about 3 minutes)
- Add chopped garlic and sausages to the seasoned oil. Sauté, stirring till meat is browned and cooked through.
- Add broccoli rabe to the sausage, along with the broccoli rabe water, salt and pepper, to taste.
- Turn heat to high and cook, stirring, till sauce is hot.
- Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente
- Drain Orecchiette and return it to the pot. Add ⅓ of the sausage-broccoli rabe sauce. Toss over high heat. When combined and hot, remove from heat and mound onto a platter or divide among 4 bowls. Top with the rest of the sauce and a generous sprinkle of Pecorino. Enjoy!