This hearty pasta dish is one of our favorites of all time. I have been making it for many years; I think the original recipe was one from Lidia Bastianich. Rapini, or broccoli rabe, is a pleasantly bitter green, with slender stalks, lots of leaves, and small florets (similar to ordinary broccoli). But the similarity ends with the flavor. Rapini is bold and bitter. It benefits from braising with a little stock and lots of garlic and olive oil. The texture and flavor soften and it becomes a hearty and satisfying green vegetable. The partnership of rapini with sausage and pasta is genius. The sweet sausage tames the assertiveness of the vegetable, and the little grooved "ears" of pasta catch all the good bits of the sauce. There is flavor and texture galore in every bite. In fact, rapini is so delicious that you could omit the sausage and still have a very good pasta dish. If you have tentative eaters in your family, just substitute ordinary broccoli for the rapini. It will still be a successful dish. But I urge you to try rapini; consider it a culinary adventure. You won't be disappointed.
Choose rapini with fresh-looking leaves and small, tender stalks. Trim any thick, woody ends of the stalks and wash the vegetable in a large bowl of cold water. Lift it out to drain in a colander.
Braise the coarsely chopped rapini with sweet Italian sausage, chopped garlic, a little chicken stock, and a sprinkle of red pepper for spice.
Orecchiette with Rapini and Sausage
(serves 3 to 4, depending on appetites)
1 bunch rapini (broccoli rabe), about 14 to 16 ounces
8 ounces sweet Italian sausage, in bulk form or removed from the casings
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup chicken stock
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
8 ounces orecchiette pasta
1 tablespoon butter
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Trim the thick ends of the rapini stalks and peel them if they are large. Swish the leaves and stalks in a large bowl or sink full of cold water. Lift out of the water, shaking to dry, and chop into 1 1/2 to 2-inch pieces. Set aside. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the Italian sausage and breaking it up with a wooden spoon, saute until browned and cooked through. If the pan seems dry, add another tablespoon of oil. Lower the heat to medium and add 1/3 of the chopped rapini. Toss well until the vegetable begins to wilt, then add the remaining rapini. Pour the chicken stock into the pan, add the minced garlic, and red pepper flakes, taste for salt, and season appropriately. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover the pan, and cook until the stalks and florets of the rapini are tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. There should be just enough stock in the pan to keep the mixture moist but not soupy. In the meantime, cook the orecchiette until al dente. Drain, return to the pot, and toss with the butter. Add the rapini and sausage and toss gently. Portion into warm bowls and top generously with grated Parmesan cheese and an additional drizzle of olive oil, if you like.
(adapted from Lidia's Italy: Recipes)