There was unexpected abundance at the market on Saturday. It is still very early in our growing season and I went thinking I would find spring onions, radishes, asparagus, spinach, lettuce...and not much else. But to my surprise, there were also beets, strawberries and broccoli. It is such a pleasure to be able to cook from the local market again that I bought some of everything....
I'm sure it will come as no great surprise that the broccoli I purchased made its way into a pasta dish. Because reasonably good broccoli is available year round, pasta tossed with broccoli shows up on my table with some regularity. Normally I just discard the tough and woody stems and dress the pasta with broccoli florets (blanched in the same water the pasta is cooked in) and olive oil that has been infused with various salty and aromatic ingredients (usually some combination of garlic, anchovies, hot pepper flakes, capers, olives, lemon zest and crushed fennel spice). But the broccoli that I purchased Saturday was so beautiful and tender—even the stems—that I wanted to treat it a little differently than I usually do. Instead of throwing the stems away, I thought I would replace my infused olive oil base with a "sauce" of the stems prepared in a manner I have seen described as "long-cooked", or "braised", broccoli.
I know. "Long-cooked" broccoli sounds horrible. What could possibly be worse than over-cooked, mushy broccoli? But it is in fact fantastic. The long, slow cooking process uses very little water and results in a rich, concentrated, nutty flavor that one would be hard pressed to recognize in a blind taste test. It is broccoli...but better. Alice Waters serves broccoli prepared this way as a vegetable side dish and Deborah Madison uses it as a topping for bruschetta.
To prepare long-cooked broccoli, toss thin slices of broccoli—stems (peeled, if tough), florets or both—with a generous amount of olive oil, water, some salt and optional hot pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer and cook covered, over very low heat, until the broccoli is very tender and beginning to fall apart. If all of the water evaporates before the broccoli is meltingly tender, just add a bit more. Garlic and onions are sometimes cooked along with the broccoli. Finishing seasonings can include anchovies, lemon zest, olives and salty cheeses like Pecorino or Parmesan.
The broccoli that I purchased was so fine that in addition to wanting to use it all, I didn't want to muddy the flavor with too many additions. So I settled for adding a few spring onions and some pepper flakes to the stems as they cooked and a finishing of toasted pine nuts (for sweetness and texture), along with some salty olives and pecorino.
I will admit that the broccoli that emerges after its long, gentle simmer, is a rather unappetizing shade of olive green. I would guess that this unfortunate color is the reason that long-cooked broccoli isn't seen on menus everywhere. But by combining the bright green, quickly blanched florets with the long cooked stems, the medley of broccoli that I prepared to dress our pasta overcame even that issue—blending harmoniously into something as beautiful as it was tasty.
Rigatoni with Broccoli Cooked Two Ways
10 to 12 oz. Broccoli
2 to 3 T. olive oil
3 spring onions—including some of the green, halved and thinly sliced
a generous pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 c. pitted Kalamata olives (about 12), quartered lengthwise
2 T. toasted pine nuts
1/2 lb. Rigatoni, or other short, sturdy pasta
Extra Virgin Olive oil for drizzling
Freshly grated Pecorino
Trim the florets away from the stems and cut into uniform, smaller florets (less than an inch); set aside. Trim away any of the stem that is very tough or woody. Cut the stems lengthwise into rough sticks and then cut the sticks thinly cross-wise.
Warm 2 to 3 T. of olive oil in a medium sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the spring onions and hot pepper flakes along with a pinch of salt. Cook briefly until the onions are beginning to wilt. Add the thinly sliced broccoli stems along with a few tablespoons of water and bring to a simmer. Season lightly with salt, cover, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the broccoli stems, stirring from time to time, until very tender—about 30 to 40 minutes. As the broccoli cooks, check the pan occasionally. If all of the liquid has evaporated, add a bit more. When the broccoli stems have begun to fall apart, remove from the heat. Taste and correct the seasoning. Keep warm while you prepare the rest of the sauce and pasta.
Bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. When the pasta water comes to a boil, add 2 T. of salt (or to taste). Add the broccoli florets to the boiling water and cook until just tender—about 2 minutes. Scoop the broccoli out, shaking off any excess water and add to the long cooked stems along with the pine nuts and olives. Set aside and keep warm while the pasta cooks.
Add the pasta to the same pot that the broccoli was cooked in and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving a few spoonfuls of the cooking liquid. Add the pasta to broccoli and toss to combine—adding some of the reserved pasta water if it looks dry. If desired, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over the pasta and toss again. Serve, garnished with the grated Pecorino. Serves 2 to 3.
Variation (added 3/18/15): Omit the spring onions. Thinly slice 2 or 3 cloves of garlic. Add the garlic with the pepper flakes to the pan with the oil while the pan is still cold. Set the pan over medium heat. When the garlic begins to sizzle in the oil, throw in the broccoli stems and the water and proceed with the recipe.