One of the iconic dishes of Bari is orecchiette con le cime di rapa. Since Domenico is from Bari it was essential that I learn how to make this dish early on in our marriage. It took a while, but after a few yeas of watching his mother do it, I finally mastered the fine art of timing the cooking of both the pasta and the cima di rapa, (which cook together in the same pot) so that both came out perfect.
While my finished dish back in Rome always tasted delicious, it was never quite the same as mamma’s. Even when I had orecchiette, hand made straight from Bari, something was missing. I finally realized that it was the vegetable part of the equation I was getting wrong. Cima di rapa. Everywhere in Bari, but strangely no where to be found in Rome. But since it looked pretty much like the broccoletti that was easier to find in Roman markets, that was always my substitute.
Until I took a good hard look at my bunch of turnips.
As I was getting ready to clean the most beautiful bunch of turnips I’d seen in quite a while, I realized that I was going to have to find some use for the brilliant leaves attached to the big white globes. While I could have made this dish, I thought maybe some sort of pasta would be better. Ideally thinking, I pinched a corner of one of the leaves and popped it in my mouth, hoping for inspiration.
Cima di rapa! It was the exact same taste as those illusive Barese greens. Which, of course, makes perfect sense because if I had ever bothered to translate cima di rapa in my head I would have realized that it means ‘turnip tops.’
Luckily Domenico had just brought me up a half kilo of fresh orecchiette from Bari, so I was good to go in the pasta department. I then made the bold decision to incorporate the turnips themselves as well. I’m sure Domenico’s mamma would have been quite skeptical, thinking it was some sort of Americanized abomination. But since I was in my kitchen, and about 400 kilometers away from Bari, I figured I was pretty safe mother-in-lawly criticism.
Rather than go the anchovy route, which is the typical barese way of doing things, I decided to emphasize the sweetness of the turnips instead of fight them. Chopped into small cubes I browned them with no mercy, caramelizing the edges. The only other seasonings were a couple of shallots and a few cloves of garlic. The sweetness of the turnips and browned onions paired perfectly with the unique pungency of the bright green turnip tops and chewy little orecchiette.
Not quite mamma’s orecchiette. But no one was complaining. Not even mamma’s little boy.
- ½ kilo / 1 pound orecchiette
- 1 pound medium sized turnips with leaves
- 2 shallots
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Best olive oil for drizzling
- Separate the greens from the turnips.
- Peel and cut the turnip into ½ inch cubes.
- Wash and roughly chop the greens.
- Finely chop the shallots and garlic.
- Pour the olive oil in a pan large enough to hold the turnips and pasta together. Heat over high heat and add the turnips. Cook over high heat until they being to brown, about 8 minutes or so. Add the chopped shallots, garlic and salt. Continue to cook, stirring, until the turnips are browned at the edges and the shallots and garlic are starting to turn golden, another five minutes or so. Turn off heat
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the orecchiette. After 5 minutes, add the chopped greens.
- When the pasta is about 2 minutes from being down, heat the turnips, adding a ladle full of pasta cooking water and using a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan.
- Drain pasta and turnip greens, reserving a cup of the cooking water.
- Add to the hot pan of turnips, stirring to mix, and adding at least half of the reserved cooking water. If it seems dry, you can add the rest. Make sure the pasta is well coated.
- To serve, place in dishes and top with a drizzle of your best and fruitiest olive oil.