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Orecchiette: Cook with Puglia's Traditional Pasta

Puglia's most loved pasta, shaped like 'a little ear.'

Orecchiette pasta on a wooden board

The way orecchiette fit into each other is something I absolutely adore but many Italians claim the best pasta shapes cook uniformly throughout and should never stick!


Formed from water and semolina flour as part of Italy's Cucina Povera style of cooking, these rough-sided concave discs are fashioned in an instant on wooden kitchen tables by hand. All you need is skill and lots of practice.


Walk the capital city of Bari's beautiful 'via delle orecchiette' street where women sit road-side rolling tubes of pasta on old wooden boards and cutting them into small pieces to be molded quicky with their thumbs, then thrown onto large drying sieves where they're scooped up and sold in bags. Using century-old tools, these women are keen to tell you all about a heritage Puglia is proud of while their hands make light work of their age-old tradition.


A little dispute exists as to where Puglia's iconic pasta originates: naturally, the Pugliesi who pay homage to this pasta as one of their own, claim it was first made in the town of Sannicandro in the Province of Bari but some say orecchiette were Ancient Roman, having existed as lixulae once made from flour, water and cheese.


Wherever they come from, there's no-one else in Italy who has perfected their making and cooking more then the people of Puglia for these are now as 'Puglian' as let's say... burrata!


Orecchiette with cime di rapa pasta in a white plate on a beige table cloth

La Cucina Povera

Puglia, as the heel of Italy, is a abundantly rich region in olives and wine but poor in commerce and industry. In most of Italy, but especially in regions like Puglia, when food was expensive and luxuries like cheese were scarse, what did the locals do but reinvent the dish! Cucina Povera (translated as 'Poor Cuisine') was a movement towards simple foods tasting beautiful and costing less so you'll never find Parmigiano grated onto orecchiette here, because, as an authentic regional dish, instead of aged cheeses, dried bread crumbs were toasted in olive oil and garlic and used to 'condire' the pasta adding a delicious crunch!


Other forms of Cucina Povera are found in dishes like Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta with Beans), Panzanella (stale bread summer salad with tomatoes and cucumbers) from Tuscany and even Spaghetti Aglio e Olio - the simplest of pasta dishes with garlic and chili.


Cime di Rapa - Broccoli Florets and leaves with garlic

Cime di Rapa

'Per eccellenze' the concave cup of an orrechietta is clearly made to hold its sauce and here in Bari, there's no sauce more perfect to be held than a simple but tasty green leafy condiment.

Rapa translates as turnip but there are many varieties. Perhaps any of these would work but one stands out as the orecchiette's all-time BFF - Cime di Rapa, the 'tops of the turnip'.

These are essentially the long, serrated leaves of the broccoli plant which hide small edible florets amongst them. The whole plant can be eaten, so in winter when times were hard, farmers would save the 'cream of the rapa crop' for exportation and pick the remaining tips of the plants for pasta sauce while the woodier stems were boiled or grilled.

Throw a couple of local anchovies with garlic and chili into a pan, add Puglia's gloriously fragrant olive oil and watch how the poorest of foods and simplest of dishes suddenly comes alive!


Here's another thing I love about Puglia's dish - it's quick!

The broccoli leaves and florets are cooked in the pasta pot and then sauteed quickly in a pan with the other ingredients and more olive oil, having the most gorgeous regional plate of pasta ready in maybe 20 minutes.


Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa - The Recipe Try your hand at Puglia's classic recipe and don't worry if you can't find fresh pasta, dried orecchiette work just as well!

This is another example of the simplicity of sublime ingredients coming together to make sublime food - follow these easy steps and our tips to make one of Italy's most beautiful of pasta dishes:


A white plate of Puglia's pasta dish - orecchiette con cime di rapa

Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa (Orecchiette With Broccoli Leaves)

For 4 people:


300g orecchiette

1kg cime di rapa, broccoli leaves, tender stems and florets.

4 anchovy fillets

4-5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

Dried chilies to taste

2 cloves of garlic and salt

Option:

Breadcrumbs tossed in olive oil and toasted in a pan with cloves of garlic.


1. Clean your broccoli tips from any hard or woody parts and choose the most tender leaves and tips. Chop these into small, uniform pieces.


2. Add the leaves and chopped tender stems to a large pot of salted, boiling water and when boiling again, add the florets and the pasta.

3. Keep an eye on the suggested pasta cooking times as the orecchiette must be al-dente when strained, so 7-8 minutes.

4. In the meantime, softly sauté two cloves of crushed garlic and 4 anchovies in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until the anchovies have disintegrated and then add the chillies.

5. Add your strained pasta and greens to the hot pan and toss together for a few minutes on the heat, drizzling more olive oil to create a sauce.


Serve with toasted breadcrumbs for the authentic version or try a few regional variants by adding fried pancetta lardons or cooked sausage or even a whole burrata!


COOKING TIPS:

The anchovies can be avoided if you so choose, however, they're purely there for flavour and once dissolved into the oil, will not bring any fishy-flavour to the dish, promise!


If you don't love your orecchiette sticking together in little towers (like I do) then simply add a teaspoon of olive oil to the pasta water before the pasta goes in. Italians rarely do this, contrarily to popular belief, but when needs must, it is permitted, even by the most traditional of Pugliese mamma.


Buon appetito amici!


Learn how to cook pasta 'The Italian Way' with a guide full of tips in our blog post!

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