orecchiette alla barese: orecchiette with chicken sausage and rapini

I was 21 and invincible when I moved back to the city of Chicago, alone, to a quiet loft apartment on a tree-lined street whose peacefulness was sliced cleanly in thirds by a pair of train tracks. I had a romantic vision of what this aspirational lifestyle would look like for me: drinking wine on rooftops after crushing it at my cool-person downtown internship, doing face masks in the evenings to "relax and unwind", having all-night dinner parties around my tiny square table with new adult friends. This was a mask: having run out of money, I had to graduate a year earlier than my friends during an economic downturn with a psych degree and no real plan, and I was anxious. From the balcony of that apartment, storm brewing over the skyline, running on 3 hours of sleep after my first day (and overnight) at work, I realized I was alone in my life stage and also a total idiot. This kicked off a long, dark year.

This was during the later part of the recession, in which I went from making no money for a thankless internship to making garbage money for a garbage job. I spent most of my energy on the banalities of basic survival: caffeinate, avoid lurching red line passengers, sometimes eat, trip over a pile of new tasks while trying to do the existing ones, shower, think about crying, sleep a little. There wasn't enough money in my account to do the kind of social drinking it takes to cope with the existential dread of adjusting to adult life.

Surprising no one, my first dishes in that kitchen were riffs on pasta. I guess this is a classic dish in the eyes of culinary people, but at 21, I'd only had this combination because an ex made it for me while visiting new jersey, and I thought it was so alien and original and cool. In my attempt, my kitchen was a mess, my broccolini was bitter, and my orecchiette was undercooked, but I was proud that I did it, and so I poured a glass of $4 sauvignon blanc and brought my plate outside and and took a picture. And thanks to iPhoto backups, here it is, terribly composed, shot on a bargain-priced digital camera:

For that reason, this particular pasta is still a bizarro comfort food for me, and making it still gives me a surge of identity-soothing satisfaction — because now I have it down to a science. The trick is to really blanch the hell out of the rapini (the leafier, softer, more exotic cousin of the stalkier-looking broccolini I used back then - I find bunches of this at Whole Foods now) and then drown it in cold water to mellow it out. It also makes a big difference to grate a fluffy pile of cheese before you toss everything together, even though I am the #1 fan of the deli pre-grate.

Full disclosure: I had absolutely no idea this was in any way related to the area of Italy where my grandmother was from until after I'd already made it. But there you have it. Blood connection.

Today in California, my version tends to be rapini-dominant with less sausage, but the ratios here are less important than the ingredients. Sweet italian isn't the most common variety of chicken sausage and rapini season isn't long (mostly winter-spring), but when the stars align and I happen to find both at one store, this immediately replaces anything else I had planned. Should you find yourself in this boat, I suggest you do the same.

dramatic improvements in lighting and composition, guys.

dramatic improvements in lighting and composition, guys.

RECIPE

Effortful time: 30 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

YOU NEED

  • 12 oz. orecchiette pasta (it's tempting to use shells if you can't find it, but I'd recommend penne as an alternate instead)
  • 1 bunch rapini, rinsed and stems trimmed
  • 1 lb. sweet italian chicken sausage
  • 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp. chili flakes, optional
  • 1/3 cup pecorino romano cheese, freshly grated
  • Kosher salt

MAKE IT

  1. In a large pasta pot, bring salted water to a boil. Add whole rapini and cook about 5 minutes, until very bright green but not wilted. Use tongs to remove it into a bowl of cold water. Leave it there for a bit. Add more water if necessary, and bring your weird green water back to a boil.

  2. In a sauté pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. You can either squeeze the sausages from their casings or slice them open, but you'll want to discard those and cook only the meat within. Cook, breaking up every few minutes, until the sausage is cooked through. Remove from heat. 

  3. While the sausage cooks, it should be time for the pasta to go in. Do that and undercook it by about 2 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. 

  4. Save the drowning rapini and lay it on a cutting board. Chop roughly, ensuring no pieces are too huge for one bite. 

  5. Clear a small space in your sausage pan. Add another tbsp of olive oil and fry the chili flakes and minced garlic until the garlic is just golden, not more than 1 minute. Immediately add the blanched rapini and a splash of pasta water. This is to get the cooled rapini back up to temperature. 

  6. Once everything is steaming, add the drained pasta and cheese and toss together until the ingredients are combined evenly, the sauce is slick, and the cheese has disappeared into the dish. Add more pasta water as you go to keep things loose and free. 

  7. Spoon into bowls and top with more freshly grated cheese. 

  8. You are definitely going to want a super grassy, extra dry Sauvignon Blanc with this. The $4 variety will work just fine.