CHIAVARI, Italy – I saw a Facebook post a while back of an adorable little girl sitting at a kitchen table with pasta dough spread out in front of her. Her grandmother was teaching her how to make orecchiette.
The photo made me smile and brought back memories of a trip I made to Bari a few years ago where I saw other grandmothers and granddaughters sitting out at tables in the streets in front of their houses doing the same thing, making orecchiette.
Pugliese food is fairly simple to make and simply delicious. There are no complicated sauces or techniques needed, just some good Pugliese olive oil, a little garlic and the freshest ingredients you can get your hands on. Right now you can find beautiful, blood red pomodorini – cherry tomatoes - in the markets across Italy, which makes it the perfect time to make orecchiette with pomodorini.
But while this recipe calls for pomodorini, orecchiette are also good with sausage, zucchini, broccoli, alla carbonara, and even though I know I’m risking the wrath of the Pugliese, I have to say they are good with pesto too.
Orecchiette are a very old pasta that originated in Bari sometime between the twelfth and thirteenth century. Over time, early pasta makers developed the ear like shape which allowed the pasta to dry faster. They were a big hit with the population, bigger than the iphone or the ipad if you can imagine that, because when they were dried they could be stored and used during a famine, an all too frequent problem in Europe in the 1300 and 1400’s.
One of the things I’ve learned from my Italian friends is that it’s best to keep fresh pasta in the refrigerator, Like wine, fresh pasta has to ‘breathe so it’s best not to cover it with Saran Wrap or other cling-films, or keep it in a closed plastic container. Paper food containers or wrapping it in cooking paper are both okay, but the best way to keep it is on a ceramic plate covered with a clean cotton cloth.
As for cooking fresh pasta, you need plenty of salted water, and it’s important to put the pasta in when the water is at a full rolling boil. When you drop the pasta in, the water stops boiling so you have to turn up the heat for a minute or so in order to bring it back to a boil. Once the water is boiling again, adjust the heat so it boils gently. It’s not a good idea to cover the pot when cooking pasta as the water will boil over.
Filled pasta is another story. It should be dropped in the water just before it comes to a boil, and then cooked with care. If it’s cooked too long, or if the heat is too high, the pasta shapes may break or split open. But enough of my prattle, let’s get on with good stuff.
Orecchiette with Pomodorini
400 grams of fresh orecchiette
300 grams di arugula (rucola in Italian/ aka rocket) or another type of bitter green
10 mature cherry tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
10 black olives
1/2 of a hot chili pepper or red pepper flakes
50 grams of aged ricotta (or pecorino)
Extravergine Italian olive oil
2 tablespoons of toasted breadcrumbs (optional)
Wash the arugula under running water and dry. Boil it in salted water for about 2 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and let cool. Then squeeze well to remove excess water. Save the cooking water for the pasta.
Wash and peel the cherry tomatoes, cut them into quarters and place in a colander. Sprinkle with coarse salt and set aside. Peel the garlic and dice it, along with the pitted olives.
Heat 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a saucepan, add the chopped garlic and olives, the drained cherry tomatoes, chili pepper, stir and cook over moderate heat for about 5 minutes.
Add the arugula, season with salt and turn off the flame. Cook the orecchiette in the same water that the arugula cooked in. When the pasta is cooked, (if you are using fresh orecchiette they cooked rather quickly), drain and put them back in the pot and add the sauce. Mix and cook together for 30 seconds. Turn off the flame. Serve with a grated ricotta or pecorino, a few drops of olive oil and a sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs.