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Broccoli and pasta
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Broccoli and pasta

I hope you won't mind if I highlight a pasta dish for the third article in a row. We do enjoy a lot of pasta around here, where it ranks as a nutritious staple that's quick, easy and almost infinite in its variations ... and the recipe I ran across this week is mighty good.

It features orecchiette, a Southern Italian pasta shape (from Apulia, also known as Puglia, the Italian "boot heel" that also gives us the Primitivo grape, Zinfandel's cousin). The name literally means "little ears," and a quick examination of their cupped, rounded form shows why, although I suppose they could have also called it "little World War I soldier's helmets."

Orecchiette falls into an odd category, a bit smaller than most "short" pasta (like penne) but substantially larger than "soup" pasta (like orzo). Because each "ear" is small, yet thick enough to hold an al dente toothiness, it makes an excellent pasta choice with a recipe that's made up of bite-size bits of vegetables and/or meat in a sauce with little or no liquid.

Which brings us to the recipe, a quick broccoli-and-sausage sauce for pasta that I modified from the current (November-December 2002) edition of my favorite cooking magazine, Cook's Illustrated.

In an article on Pasta and Broccoli, subtitled "We set out to rescue this classic Italian pairing and avoid the inevitable bowl of lackluster, overcooked broccoli married to underseasoned pasta," writer Shannon Blaisdell came up with an admirable combo of broccoli, Italian sausage, roasted red peppers and ... orecchiette, of course. (This may be a variation on a traditional Pugliese dish that uses broccoli and orecchiette with tomatoes and small rations of anchovies and hot peppers.)

Virtually incapable of trying a recipe, even for the first time, without tweaking it, I altered some of the proportions (a higher ratio of sausage to broccoli and pasta, primarily), added a spice or two, cut back the cheese, and reduced the quantity to feed two.

The result was excellent, filling and reasonably healthy, a multi-flavored, textured pasta dinner with plenty of flavor to stand up to a crisp, fruity red wine.

Assuming basic kitchen skills, this dinner can be made in little more than the time it takes to tell about it, as you can fashion most of the sauce while the pasta boils.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 Italian sausage, sweet or hot as you prefer, about 4 to 6 ounces
1 or 2 medium heads of broccoli
1/4 cup roasted red peppers
2 cloves garlic
4 ounces orecchiette (see below for substitutes and measurement note)
Black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


ABOUT THE PASTA: I like using real orecchiette for authenticity, but I think conchiglie (small shell pasta) or even elbow macaroni would work fine, and just about any short pasta would do in a pinch.

ABOUT MEASUREMENTS: A reader asked last week why I often give pasta quantities by weight rather than volume. I've found that one important key to eating well without gaining weight, for me at least, is to be scrupulous about portion control. To that end, a quality digital kitchen scale has proven one of the best investments I ever made. Weigh out 2 ounces of pasta per diner, 4 ounces for two for 200 calories per person. If you don't have a precise kitchen scale, estimate 1/2 cup of short pasta for two and you'll be close.

Now, on to the recipe:

1. Wash the broccoli and cut it into small florets. Mince the garlic, and cut the red peppers into 1/2-inch squares. Fill a large pot with plenty of water for the pasta, add enough salt "to make it taste like sea water," at least a couple of tablespoons, and bring it to the boil.

2. Remove the casing from the sausage and cook it over medium heat in a sautee pan (nonstick if you prefer), breaking the meat into small bits as it browns. Stir in the garlic and cook with the sausage for a minute or so until it's translucent; then add the red pepper squares and the broccoli florets, salt pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Stir to blend, pour in 1/2 cup water, cover and reduce heat to very low.

3. While the broccoli is cooking, put the orecchiette in the boiling water, stir once or twice to keep it from sticking together, and cook until al dente - the brand I chose, De Ceccho, needed about 12 minutes. Keep an eye on the broccoli to judge when it's getting done to your taste - there's significant variation among individuals who prefer it slightly underdone and crisply tender, and those who would rather err on the side of getting it just a bit soft. As it gets close, remove the lid and increase heat to medium to boil off most of the remaining water.

Drain the pasta, put it back in the pot, and put in the cooked broccoli and sausage mixture. Drizzle in a taste of good olive oil, 1 tablespoon or less, and the cheese; mix and serve.

WINE MATCH: As noted, this dish sings with a fruity-crisp red. We stayed in the Mediterranean but moved from Southern Italy to Central Spain for a match, the affordable, tasty Pergolas 1997 Valdepeñas Tempranillo featured in yesterday's Thirty Second Wine Advisor.

WEB LINK: Cook's Illustrated, the source of inspiration for this week's recipe, has a Website at
, with content that apparently intentionally lags one issue behind the print edition, so paying subscribers get the first look at new material.

I like this magazine because it's clear and straightforward and devoted entirely to cooking, undiluted with travel or lifestyle articles, and aimed squarely at readers who enjoy cooking and like to take an intelligent, reasonably analytical look at the kitchen arts. We have no advertising relationship, I am speaking strictly as a satisfied reader. It's worth a look.

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Thursday, Oct. 31, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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