Pasta con Broccoli, or Pasta with Broccoli has been a staple meal in my family for as long as I can remember. My grandmother made it. My aunts all make it. My mother makes it, and I do too. It’s not only because it is an incredibly quick and easy dish to cook, though it is. It’s also not only because it is a pretty healthy dish, because it’s that too. My family eats a lot of pasta with broccoli because it’s just plain delicious.
I sometimes think that a lot of people imagine that Italian cooking, is all about long, drawn out, complicated dishes that take all day to prepare. While there certainly are a lot of those, there are many more that aren’t. Italians don’t just sit around living la dolce vita all day long. They go to work and school, run errands and take care of their families just like everybody else. Every Italian housewife I ever knew had a slew of great recipes in her arsenal – like this one – that could be put together in an hour or less.
So let me show you just how easy Pasta con Broccoli is to make.
First, get yourself a couple of bunches of nice, fresh, green broccoli. Choose broccoli with floret clusters that are compact and not bruised. They should be uniformly colored, with no yellowing. They also shouldn’t have any blooming yellow flowers, as this is a sign of over maturity. The stalk and stems should be firm with no slimy spots. If the leaves are still attached, they should be a deep, dark green and not wilted.
Cut off the florets, and halve any that are larger than about an inch in diameter. This is so that the broccoli will cook evenly. You can also use frozen broccoli florets in this dish. Doing so doesn’t affect the quality at all. But, if you do go with frozen, don’t thaw it before cooking or else it will get mushy.
Next, get out your best extra-virgin olive oil. A really good one will have a greenish tinge to it. You’ll also need to slice up some fresh garlic cloves. Try to get them thin, but not too much so or else they may burn in the pan.
Heat the oil in a pan and gently sauté the garlic. You won’t believe how fragrant that garlic gets! I always add some red pepper flakes too, because I’m a fiery Italian woman.
Once the garlic is soft and lightly golden, toss in the broccoli, cover and cook.
When the broccoli is tender and just a tad bit browned, pour in a little of the pasta cooking water or chicken stock, and simmer until the broccoli is cooked through. What! You didn’t forget about the pasta, did you? Sheesh! That’s why it’s called Pasta con Broccoli. Do I have to tell you everything?
The traditional pasta used in this dish is orecchiette, which means little ears. Orecchiette is a variety of pasta from Puglia, and is shaped like…well – you know – like little ears. They’re perfect served in sauces and soups because their “scoop-like” shape traps bits of sauce or broth. It’s like having a thousand little bowls inside your plate. If you can’t find orecchiette or just don’t feel like using it, you can substitute any kind of short pasta, preferably one with a textured surface.
When your broccoli is nice and tender, add in the cooked pasta and toss. Drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil all over the top, sprinkle with grated cheese and you’re done.
Pasta con Broccoli
1 pound dry short pasta like orecchiette
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) olive oil, plus extra as needed
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (If you like it hotter, add more.)
1 pound fresh or frozen broccoli florets
2/3 cup reserved pasta water or chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, grated for sprinkling
In a large pot of boiling salted water, add pasta and cook according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid, then drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Gently sauté the garlic and red pepper flakes until garlic fragrant and lightly golden. Be careful not to burn it!
Raise the heat up to medium-high and mix in the broccoli. Cover and cook until the broccoli is slightly browned and crisp tender. This will take about 8-10 minutes, depending on your stove. You will have to keep watch and stir often to make sure that it doesn’t burn.
Add reserved pasta water or stock and simmer, uncovered, until liquid has reduced by half, about 2 minutes, and the broccoli nice and soft, but not mushy.
Toss with pasta and season with salt and pepper to taste. To serve, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with grated cheese.
Serves 4-6 as a first course.