Italians are generally very culturally aware of the links between a particular recipe and its regional origins. Orecchiette pasta is from Puglia and everyone knows that it is best served with Broccoli or Cime di Rapa, preferably on a very Pugliese terra-cotta plate.

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I have only been to Puglia a couple of times and my last trip was maybe seven or eight years ago to the wild country south of Bari, where parched looking olive groves and rocky beaches dive into the sea and the summer light dazzles against the white of the Southern Baroque piazzas. We followed my friend Elisabetta’s old Fiat Panda down past Naples and across the highway that links the Tyrhennian Sea on the west to the Adriatic on the east, arriving near Oltranto as the sun came up over the coast that looks over the sea towards Albania and Greece.  Someone found coffee and we all shook off the grogginess of the night drive by pitching ourselves into the salty turquoise water.

As sure as the sea is untamed and many of the beaches rocky and inhospitable, the food in Puglia is wonderful. Mention that you have been to Puglia and people will immediately coo “ahhh, si mangia bene in Puglia, si mangia benissimo”.  Never mind that the same people will say the same thing if you happen to mention you have been in Campania or Emilia-Romagna or Le Marche or Piemonte.  It’s all true, you do eat well in each one of the twenty one mini countries that make up Italy.

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Broccoli includes broccolo romananesco, a fluorescent green variety with lord of the flies looking pointy florets, along with Sicilian or regular broccoli and Cime di Rapa, which are technically turnip tops that have little, broccoli-like sproutings amongst them and are strictly winter vegetables in Italy. Any variety can be used as a base for Pasta con Broccoli or Pasta con Cime di Rapa.  In Puglia, the green sauce that results from the cooking down of these winter greens, perhaps with a couple of anchovies, a dried chili or two, is served with small ear-like pasta called Orecchiette, and the broccoli have been well cooked enough to form a generous sauce for the little ears. Some recipes cook the broccoli and the pasta at the same time, others cook the broccoli first but conserve the cooking water in which to cook the pasta.  I warm to both ways because they are practical, they save water and call for less washing up (even though I favor the latter).

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa (or Broccoli)

for 4 people

400 g (14 oz, or 2 cups) dried orecchiete pasta
1/2 kilo (1 lb) turnip tops or broccoli
1 dried chili
1 clove garlic, peeled and lightly squashed
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt
4 anchovy fillets (optional)
or Pecorino Romano (in the case of no anchovies)

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Rinse the broccoli and cut into manageable florets.  Root to sprouts is an Italian mantra; the finer stalks get cut into manageable pieces and the larger trunk of broccoli peeled to reveal the tender core, diced and in they all go. Once water has come to the boil, toss a good heaped teaspoon of salt in along with the broccoli and cook until al dente.

Remove the broccoli using a small colander or slotted spoon and keep the lovely green cooking water for the pasta. In a good heavy-based saucepan, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over a medium heat.  Add the whole clove of garlic, a small dried chili broken in two and the anchovies. Use a wooden spoon to bash the anchovies into a kind of paste. Add the cooked broccoli to the pan and stir well, adding a tablespoon or so of cooking water to the pan.

The cooking water!  The secret to Italian pasta sauces.  I have seen recipes for Pasta with Broccoli in so many foreign publications where the broccoli is bobbing around (semi-crudo) on top of the pasta. No! Italians cook the cime di rapa or broccoli down (using the cooking water) to create a sauce;  letting the vegetables become a velvety coating for the pasta, enveloping the little ears or orecchiette with the flavors of the broccoli perked up by the chili and the saltiness of the anchovies.

Once the broccoli sauce is reducing away, add the pasta to the green cooking water that has been brought to the boil add a teaspoon of salt and cook according to specified cooking times. I like to think that some of the minerals lost in the broccoli cooking process find their way back into the pasta during this stage. Keep adding the cooking water to the broccoli sauce which at this point has the advantage of being starch enriched thanks to the pasta, this will help thicken up the sauce. When the pasta is al dente, drain (reserving a little cooking water in case it is needed), add to the sauce and toss well.

Take to the table in a large ceramic pasta bowl, drizzled with a little extra virgin olive oil. In Puglia the traditional terra-cotta table ware is marked with simple brown rims and a blue dot like flower pattern. If you have left out the anchovies you can dust the pasta with a little Pecorino Romano.