At this time of year, cime di rapa (turnip tops) just keep coming. They’re a bit blowsier now, and florets form more readily, to mix with the cooked leaves. But they remain steadily delicious – so delicious in fact that if I find myself home alone and wanting something very light for lunch, I’ll prepare a huge bowlful of nothing but cime, steamed until soft then tossed briefly in a frying pan with oil with garlic and chili. Perfect.
This recipe, from the southern region of Puglia, tranforms the cime into something half way between a smooth pasta sauce and a plateful of green punctuated by little full moons of pasta. I use an above-average proportion of vegetable: I prefer the emphasis to shift away from the pasta.
Turnip tops – large bunch (at least 1.5 kg)
Orecchiette pasta – 400 g
Anchovy fillets – 10-15
Garlic – 3 cloves
Fresh chili – to taste
Prepare the cime di rapa by discarding any leaves which are particularly large and tough, or which have yellow patches on them. Now tear the leaf proper off the central vein of all the large- and medium-sized leaves. Some less-than-finger-thick bits of stem, from nearer the tip of the leaves, can be carefully peeled and added to the usable leaves. Smaller leaves and florets can be used whole. Bear in mind, though, that any stems which are more than about half a centimetre thick may prove very chewy and stringy, even after cooking.
The next stage of preparation makes me wince, because – as a hard-line steamer – I do hate my greens coming into contact with water. There’s no other way, however: believe, me, I’ve tried. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and tip the prepared turnip tops into it. Bring the water back to the boil quickly over a high heat; when it’s bubbling again, add the pasta.
I’ve tried this recipe with all kinds of pasta but none works as well as the traditional orecchiette: tiny soup-bowl shapes of egg-less pasta which hail from Puglia. Why these lend themselves in particular, I couldn’t say. Perhaps it’s all in the mind: that dreadful weight of Italian culinary tradition weighing on our perceptions.
While the pasta is cooking, chop the garlic, chili and anchovy fillets finely, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan large enough to hold the pasta, and gently cook the garlic etc until the anchovy fillets have disintegrated and the garlic is soft.
The pasta and vegetable should cook until the orecchiette have begun to soften on the outside but are still fairly crunchy inside. Getting the precise moment is an art, and even after years of practice, I can’t claim to do it right every time. But it’s important that you whisk the pasta off the heat and drain it – along with the cime, obviously – when it still has four or five minutes of cooking time to go. Before you drain it, don’t, whatever you do, forget to dip a heatproof jug into the saucepan and scoop out 300-400 ml of the cooking water. Set this aside.
When the pasta and cime have drained (no need to shake or wait because you need lots of moisture now), tip them into the frying pan with the garlic, chili and anchovy mix, and begin cooking everything over a medium heat. As you go along, slowly add the cooking water which you have set aside. You should do this in small amounts, just covering the bottom of the saucepan and gently stirring the pasta as it soaks up this liquid. When it starts getting a little dry, add more cooking water. Continue this process until the pasta is cooked perfectly, remaining al dente.
If you’ve judged everything correctly, the cime should now have turned partly into a green emulsion, with thicker, more vegetably strands running through it. Each piece of pasta should be tinged a lively green, with some of the sauce clinging to it.
According to Italian tradition, fish (in this case anchovies) and cheese never mix. And personally I prefer this dish as is. But there are those people who add grated baked ricotta – a hard, salty cheese with a bitter tang. You’ll have to make your own mind up on this one.
©Anne Hanley, 2012