I am wracking my brain trying to figure out what to say about this dish. Where did it come from? Who passed it on to me? When did it come to be? The fact is, it quietly slipped in at some point and decided to stick around. It was there when I had to throw dinner for twelve together at a moment’s notice; It’s been on our table for countless family dinners, at potlucks and picnics. It even came on vacation with us last winter to the Florida coast. Like a trusty friend, it is there, always at the ready.
Spring is its most perfect season. Spring is when flowering greens make their grand entrance for the year, and you can try making this dish to equally good effect with flowering turnip, collard, or kale. The tiny flowers peeking out from any of these greens are a lovely burst of the season. I will warn you: With a mere seven ingredients, it’s worth procuring the best you can find. I use Rustichella D’Abruzzo pasta and real Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it well; it should taste like seawater. While you’re waiting for the water to boil, rinse the rapini and cut off the dry tips of the stems. Roughly chop. I usually just kind of hack the whole bundle into thirds. Don’t worry about precision, just get it into smaller pieces, stems and all.
Set up a bowl with ice water big enough to accommodate all the rapini. Also set up a sheet pan lined with towels to drain the excess water after you blanch the greens. Now get to cooking: When the water comes to a boil, plunge the rapini into the water and cook for about 3 to 5 minutes until the greens are tender with just a hint of crunch left. You’re not going for mush, but springiness. You might have to do this in two batches depending on the size of your pot. When the greens are the right texture, pull them out with a spider and plunge them in ice water for a few minutes until completely cooled. Next, let the rapini drain on the towels. I have done this first thing in the morning for dinner that night.
This is important, so listen up: SAVE YOUR COOKING WATER. I mean it. Don’t you dare throw it away; there’s flavor there. You will use this water to cook your pasta and, trust me, it may look funny, but it will taste amazing. Let me say it again, so you don’t miss it: SAVE YOUR COOKING WATER. There.
Cook the orecchiette in your salted rapini water until al dente, about 13 minutes, depending on your brand of pasta.
Meanwhile, drizzle a glug or two of olive oil in a large sauté pan and cook the sausage for 10 minutes on medium-high until it’s slightly amber on the edges. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, and a dash or two of salt, and cook until the garlic releases its fragrance. At this point, there should be gorgeous bits clinging to the bottom of the pan. Add your wine and stir until all the bits let up. Reduce the wine until a little syrupy, then add the blanched rapini. When the pasta is cooked, use the spider to transfer the pasta to the pan with the sausage and rapini.
Marry everything together on medium heat, and add a handful of cheese. If it’s too dry or sticky, add a little of the rapini/pasta cooking water. Toss to mix well and transfer to a warm bowl. Add more cheese to finish, if desired. Savor with delight and gratitude.