This second trip to Puglia gave us the opportunity to delve deeper into the region’s cuisine, and revisit such canonical dishes as Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa. Above: The fruttivendolo in Spongano, with chicories and cime di rapa (bottom) in season and on prominent display.
Spongano resides in the southern portion of Puglia, and we were there for a week attending one of The Awaiting Table’s cooking courses. Especially arranged for returning students, it was a wonderfully engaging blend of the old and the new. We were already familiar with making orecchiette, and adding farina di grano arso, or flour from “burnt grain,” was an unexpected treat. The dough, a blend of 2/3 semola rimacinata (semolina flour) with 1/3 grano arso, was a delight to work with — soft yet resilient, and highly workable.
Grano arso, a particularly Pugliese example of cucina povera, is traditionally made from the leftover grain gleaned from fields burned following the harvest. More typical of northern Puglia, some mills now offer a contemporary version and toast the semolina flour to replicate the smokiness of the original, a characteristic that marries perfectly in this dish with the bitter cime di rapa, salty anchovies, and peppery local olive oil.
Our trip afforded us many chances to sample different variations of this particular dish, including our last night spent at the airport hotel in Bari, not a place one usually thinks of as a gastronomic opportunity. However, with Italian business people as their main clientele, the hotel restaurant took pride in offering more than the standard airport fare. In this sleekly modern environment, we had a final, memorable plate of orecchiette di cime di rapa — plain semolina pasta heavily dressed in a bright green, almost a pureed, sauce, with just enough anchovy to balance the bitterness, but not so much as to mask the freshness of the cime di rapa.
On return and before we’ve had chance to even unpack, we assuaged our phantom homesickness by making a jet-lagged batch of orecchiette. Our hands were eager to get back into the rhythm of making pasta, and put into practice some of that which we learned while away.
We somehow neglected to plant cime di rapa this fall, but had a number of other brassica greens that readily took their place. We picked a couple of bunches of hon tsai tai to combine with the radish tops we saved just for this dish. The bright magenta of the hon tsai tai faded with cooking but, in the end, served fine as a substitute and added just the right amount of bitterness so integral to this dish.
The recipe for Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa can be found in a previous post. This time, though, we blanched the greens in salted water before chopping them up finely. We then sautéed a clove or two of minced garlic with a pinch of pepperoncino in olive oil, then added 4 to 6 anchovy fillets, cooked until they dissolved into the oil. The chopped greens are added to the pan with a splash of water, and cooked until tender. Once the greens are done, boil the pasta, then tossed the cooked pasta into the pan with the greens. If necessary, add more pasta water to loosen the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and finish with olive oil. If you like, serve topped with toasted breadcrumbs — we’ve come to appreciate the nuance of having it without. But, as we were constantly admonished with a culturally-based shudder, never ever with cheese.
Note: For more on making orecchiette, visit the talented Simona at Briciole, where she’s been exploring making this as well as other classic pasta shapes by hand, and offers a wealth of information, tutorials and links. She makes it doubly fun by including an Italian version of each post!
Local ingredients: Hon tsai tai, radish tops, and garlic from the garden.