Simple Art of Cooking: Hold the Cheese, Please; Pastas with Vegetables

Embrace a fennel bulb today. Photo credit:
Embrace a fennel bulb today. Photo credit:

Here and there are pasta recipes that do not require cheese of any kind. This may seem blasphemous to some, yet there are those who cannot, for health or allergy reasons, eat dairy products.

Here I introduce two pasta dishes with vegetable sauces. Of course, gluten-free pasta can be used, if that’s an issue. Just be sure the pasta is of high quality so as to benefit texture and flavor. One of my favorite vegetables is fennel, and one of my favorite pasta recipes with fennel is Giuliano Bugialli’s spaghetti al finocchio, a Sicilian-based pasta that is cooked in tomatoes with oil, oregano and pureed fennel. To bypass the extra step of getting out the food mill to puree the fennel, (a food processor can puree, but the vegetable would still have to be passed through a sieve, and think of all the cleanup), I simply cut the fennel in very small pieces and simmer the vegetable to delicious tenderness in the tomatoes.

Orecchiette with broccoli rabe and capers is just about everyone’s favorite pasta. In this fine pasta dish from southern Italy, the broccoli rabe is cooked along with the orecchiette, (little ear-shaped pasta). In each of these recipes the vegetables retain their own unique flavor.

Spaghetti with fennel

Serves 4 to 6

1 medium-large fennel bulb, about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds with green top leaves
1 28-ounce can tomatoes, preferably imported Italian
1 cup lukewarm water
Kosher salt
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground pepper
1 pound dried spaghetti, preferably imported Italian

1. Clean the fennel, discarding the tough outer leaves and the dark green stems, but not the feathery leafy parts. You should have about 3/4 pound. Slice fennel, discarding the core end, then cut the slices into 1/2-inch pieces. Place in a bowl of cold water for 20 minutes. Put the canned tomatoes with their juice in a saucepan. Drain the fennel and add it to the tomatoes, along with the water and a little salt. Place over medium heat and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Place the oil, pepper flakes and oregano in a sturdy ten-inch skillet over low heat, and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomato fennel sauce, taste for salt and pepper, and reduce liquid, until slightly thickened, about 8 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add kosher salt to taste. Add the pasta and cook for 9 to 11 minutes according to the brand. Drain the pasta, transfer it to the skillet, raise the heat and sauté for 1 minute more, mixing with 2 forks to incorporate all the sauce. Transfer to a warm platter, or individual warm plates and serve hot.

Adapted from Giuliano Bugialli’s “Bugialli on Pasta,” Simon and Schuster, 1988

The timing is perfect—Orecchiette, the little “ear shaped” pasta cooks in the same amount of time as the broccoli rabe. The garlic, capers and olive oil dressing offset the slightly bitter taste of the vegetable.

Serves 4 to 5

1 large bunch broccoli rabe
Kosher salt
1 pound orecchiette
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Pinch hot red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons capers packed in wine vinegar, drained
1/2 cup pasta cooking water
3 to 4 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley

1. Trim the broccoli rabe, discarding the tough bottom stems. Separate the stems from the florets and place them in two separate bowls of cold water to soak for 20 minutes; drain. The vegetable may be prepped up to several
hours ahead.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add salt to taste then add the pasta and the leafy stems. Two minutes after adding the leafy stems, add the florets. Cook for 7 to 9 minutes longer until the pasta is al dente. At the end of the cooking time, all three ingredients should emerge properly cooked. Drain, reserving 1/2 cups of the
pasta water.

3. Meanwhile, warm the oil in a skillet and sauté the garlic for 40-50 seconds, until barely golden. Season with salt, pepper and the red pepper flakes. Add the capers and sauté for 2 minutes longer. Add the reserved pasta water, simmer and keep

4. Spoon the pasta and broccoli rabe into a large, warm serving dish. Pour over the sauce and mix well. Sprinkle with parsley and serve

Reprinted from Silvia Lehrer’s “Savoring the Hamptons: Discovering the Food and Wine of Long Island’s East End,” 2011

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