How to Choose a Pasta Shape- Orecchiette with Creamy Broccolini & Rapini Sauce

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I very carefully chose orecchiette for this Pasta with Creamy Broccolini & Rapini Sauce. Because pasta shape is not one size fits all.

One of the most appealing aspects of a big plate of pasta is the pasta itself. We all know that pasta comes in all shapes and sizes. From big fat rings of calamarata (so named for its resemblence to calamari) to the tiny little rice-like grains in orzo.

Orecchiette has an ingenious shape that is formed by pressing your thumb into a marble sized ball of dough. This creates a rough impression of a tiny vessel perfectly suited to capture sauce. Making it an ideal choice for similarly textured chunky sauces or the very uniform textures like this creamy broccolini and rapini sauce.

While there are no hard and fast rules for pairing a pasta shape with a pasta sauce there is a common sense methodology. Starting with don’t mix pasta shapes in one pot of water. While it might seems sensible to use up two half boxes of pasta during one meal. I want to encourage you to resist. Now I like using all the food in the house as much as the next cook– and spaghetti and spaghettini may seem like harmless companions. But (Hello!!) they each have different cooking times. See what I mean? Aren’t you glad you have me to thank for saving you from a crisis?

broccolini and dried orecchietteAside form this one pet peeve about cooking times, choosing a pasta shape is largely a matter a personal opinion. But if you’d like to know what goes through my brain when following my “no rules” rules try these guidelines which I based on the thoughts (and recipe) of Domenica Marchetti.

How to Choose a Pasta Shape

  • Tiny pasta shapes such as stelline, orzo or acini di pepe usually are eaten with a spoon so use them in brothy soups and the like.
  • Soups with more body and texture– such as bean soups are well suited for the medium-sized, chunky shaped pasta. Think of the smaller sized shells, cavatappi or elbow macaroni, tube-shaped ditalini, and square-shaped quadrettoni which are typically cooked right in the soup.
  • Short and sturdy shapes such as rigatoni, penne, strazzapreti or the orecchiette in today’s recipe, with their ridges and hallows can grab robustly textured sauces or those that are rich with cream.
  • Your more delicate “ribbon pastas” with long, thin noodles– such as angel hair, capellini, or the aforementioned spaghettini are best suited with lighter, smoother sauces. Light tomato sauces and simple olive oil or butter based sauces are perfect examples.
  • Flattened noodles, or noodles with ridges, such as fettuccine or linguine work well with thicker cream or cheese based sauces.
  • Save the hefty noodles, such as true spaghetti, bucatini and especially pappardelle for the rustic meat sauces or strong flavors like pesto and carbonara.

Orecchiette with Creamy Broccolini & Rapini Sauce serves 4 CLICK here for a printable recipe

  • 1 bn broccolini, stalks trimmed
  • 1 bn rapini, stalks trimmed
  • 0.5 c extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 clv garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1/2 t sea salt, plus more for pasta water
  • 1 pn cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • 1/2 c white wine
  • 1/2 c chicken broth
  • 1/4 c cream
  • 1 lb dried orecchiette pasta
  • 1/2 c freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino romano cheese
  • 1/2 c fresh breadcrumbs, fried in olive oil and seasoned to taste

creamy broccoli orecchietteBring water to a depth of about 1/2 in to a boil in a steamer pan placed over medium-high heat. Arrange the broccolini on the steamer rack, place the rack in the pan, cover, and steam the broccolini for 4 to 5 minutes, or until bright green. Transfer the florets to a bowl and set aside.

Check the water in the steamer pan, and add more as needed until it is 1/2 in deep. Bring to a boil, put the rapini on the steamer rack, cover, and steam for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the leaves and florets are wilted. Transfer to the bowl holding the broccoli.

Warm 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the garlic in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the garlic is fragrant but not browned. Add the broccolini and rapini and cook, stirring occasionally, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables and garlic are very tender. Stir in the salt and cayenne pepper and raise the heat to medium-high. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes, or until some of the wine has evaporated. Remove from the heat and let the vegetables cool for about 10 minutes.

Transfer the vegetables and their cooking liquid to a blender or food processor, add the remaining 1/4 cup oil, and puree until smooth. Gradually add the broth, about 1/4 cup at a time, and process until the puree is the consistency of a thick sauce. You should have about 3 cups sauce.

Return the sauce to the sauté pan and place over low heat. Stir in the cream and heat until warmed through. While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Add the orecchiette and stir to separate, cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions until al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water.

Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl and spoon about two-thirds of the sauce over it. Toss gently to combine the pasta and sauce thoroughly, adding a splash or two of the cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Spoon the remaining sauce over the top and sprinkle with the cheese and breadcrumbs. Serve immediately.


Greg Henry

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