Rob’s Penne with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

It’s been a long time since I’ve shared a recipe in this space, and that’s mostly because when I’ve chosen to do so, I’ve fucked them up. I’ve forgotten steps, I’ve forgotten ingredients, and I’ve given recipes that are just bad ideas. I consider every recipe I’ve posted here an embarrassment as a result.

Today is a new day, however, and this recipe has been vigorously field tested and improved over the course of the past couple of years or so. Minor modifications have been made, here and there, and I’ve picked the entire process apart and put it together, to ensure that I have achieved the proper degree of understanding necessary correctly to bestow my wisdom on all three of my loyal readers.

Step 1: Wash and blanch the broccoli rabe. Broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, is a bitter, leafy green dotted with what looks like miniature broccoli crowns, and it goes with pork like gangbusters. You can almost certainly find it at your local grocer in the near the other cruciferous veggies; typically, it is sold in bundles rather similar in size to bundled pears of asparagus.

When I made this recipe last week, using a pound each of penne and sausage, I used one of these bundles. It was a decent amount but also was maybe not quite enough, although two whole bundles certainly would have been too much. Use your own judgment when purchasing your broccoli rabe; eyeball the bundle you’re using to see if you think it’s enough to sufficiently populate the rest of the dish, keeping in mind that it will shrink a bit (not to the degree that, say, spinach or kale shrinks when cooked, but still to a noticeable extent) when cooked.

If you cannot find any broccoli rabe at the store for the very life of you, you could use regular broccoli, I guess. It will still taste fine but regular broccoli isn’t all that bitter, and therefore won’t do as good of a job offsetting the sweet, fatty sausage. For my money, you’ll be better off using Swiss chard, which still has the bitter leafy thing going for it.

Once it’s time to start cooking the stuff, put on a pot of decently salted water to boil as you rinse off your broccoli rabe. Cut off the very ends of the stems and discard them, then cut the rest into approximately 1-inch lengths. Some broccoli rabe preparations call for discarding the leaves as well, and I’m here today to tell you that you must not discard the leaves for this recipe. You’re only getting rid of the woodiest bits on the ends, and keeping everything else.

Once your broccoli rabe is rinsed and chopped, and the water is boiling, dump it in for 30 to 60 seconds, setting a timer to make sure it’s not in there longer than a full minute. Your water will stop boiling vigorously once you dump the veggies in, but don’t worry, cooking is still happening. Drain into a colander as soon as your timer goes off, then rinse the broccoli rabe under cold water to stop it from cooking further. Set it aside. You can do this step a few hours in advance, if you have the time.

One final note on the broccoli rabe: Don’t worry about whether or not it dries off. Sometimes when you’re blanching vegetables (that is, boiling then for a short amount of time as a way of par-cooking them) in advance of throwing them in a saute pan, it is appropriate to dry the veggies in question off as thoroughly as possible. This will ensure that, once you start sauteing them, they crisp up nicely. This is not one of those times; the pasta will be firm and toothsome, and therefore, the broccoli rabe doesn’t need to be crisped up. Feel free tor try it, but I wash my hands of the result.

Step 2: Assemble other things. Grab your containers of olive oil, salt, pepper, dried Italian seasoning, and crushed red pepper and keep them handy. Mince four to eight cloves of garlic to the best of your ability. Extract the juice of one lemon, removing any and all seeds that fell in. If you happen to have fresh parsley lying around, chop some of it up and set it aside.

Step 3: Put a pot of heavily salted water on to boil. Use more salt than you did for the blanching. This is going to be your past pot, in case that wasn’t clear.

Step 4: Cook 1 pound of sweet Italian sausage while your water heats up. Ideally, you will be able to find ground sweet Italian sausage for this, but this world is not always ideal. Links will work just fine as well, but they’ll take longer to cook and be a bit more of a pain to work with. If you are not able to find sweet Italian sausage of any sort, here is an imperfect, makeshift solution: mix one pound of ground pork with a whole bunch of salt, lots of pepper, and a healthy amount of fennel seeds (plus maybe some marjoram, if you have any).

Anyway, the reason I’m drawing a distinction here is because of cooking times and methods. Ground sausage takes less time and is easier to work with. Grab a large saute pan and put it on the stove over medium heat. Once hot, dump the sausage in, breaking it into chunks as it cooks. Store bought Italian sausage should already be pre-seasoned, but add a bit of salt and pepper, to be safe. Be sort of patient with this, as you will want the sausage to brown somewhat, leaving fond (browned meat bits) on the bottom of the pan. This will not happen if you’re breaking up the chunks and/or moving them around too aggressively. Remove from the pan when cooked.

Links take longer and will require a bit more work. Grab a large saute pan and put it on the stove over medium heat. Once hot, add the links, turning them every so often while still letting them brown some so that fond forms on the bottom of the pan. These will take somewhere on the order of 15-20 minutes to cook fully, and perhaps longer than that. If you’re using links, consider holding off on setting your water to boil until the sausages have been cooking for a while. Once cooked, remove from the pan and slice into thin coins.

You’ll notice I didn’t tell you to add any fat to the pan; this is because plenty of fat should render out of the sausage as it cooks. That said, if the pan looks like it’s a little too dry, feel free to add some olive oil, but only add the bare minimum needed to get things lubricated.

Step 5: Cook 1 pound of penne. Once the past water is boiling, add the penne. This may be while the sausage is browning, and that’s ok; everything else is going to happen rather quickly. If you want to pretend this is healthy, whole wheat penne is great for this, but note that it typically has a somewhat shorter cooking time. The box of penne will have basic cooking instructions which will specify a range of boiling times. Set a timer for the shortest time specified. Once there’s less than a minute to go on the timer, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water by any means necessary. Do not reserve pasta water prior to the final minute. Drain immediately when the timer goes off.

Step 6: Cook other things. Once the sausage is browned and removed from the saute pan, add the garlic and saute it in the rendered fat, adding olive oil if and only if the pan has dried out. It may be expedient to add some of the lemon juice here, so that you can start scraping up fond, but if you forget I got you covered. Once the garlic is fragrant, add the dried Italian seasoning and crushed red pepper until those too are fragrant, then add the broccoli rabe. Get the broccoli rabe warmed up, then add the sausage back in.

This portion doesn’t take too long; if your pasta is lagging behind, you don’t need to start this step until there’s 5 minutes or so left on the timer. If the pasta is ahead of your browning and sauteing, it can sit in the colander for a bit, it’s fine. Just make sure that you’re not combining everything back into the saute pan too early. The garlic could burn a bit and things could dry out.

Step 7: Combine pasta with other stuff. Dump the drained pasta into the saute pan with everything else, and reduce the heat to medium low. Drizzle everything with olive oil. Add the lemon juice and a about half of the pasta water, reserving the rest for now. Stir everything together as medium speed, so that the lemon juice, pasta water, and oil come together as a sauce, but not so quickly that chunks of penne and sausage go flying. Also, if you haven’t scraped the fond out of the bottom of the pan yet, make sure to do so as part of your stirring motion.

You’ll know that the sauce is coming together when the sausage and broccoli rabe look like they’re starting to get somewhat evenly distributed. If you’re stirring and stirring and it just doesn’t seem like that’s happening, add more pasta water bit by bit until the magic happens. Add a bunch of cracked black pepper, then taste for seasoning and adjust. Once it’s to your liking, add and stir in any chopped parsley that may be in your possession, then kill the heat.

Serve immediately with as much Parmesan cheese as will fit on top. Your reward for what turned out to be not that much work at all (especially if you blanched the broccoli rabe in advance) is a delicious, vibrant dish, wherein fatty sweet pork does a dance with bitter broccoli rabe, while the zing of the lemon juice compliments both. Feels good.

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