This is one of my favorite Italian family recipes – Pasta with Broccoli. It’s healthy, easy, meat-free, and can be vegan or vegetarian if you want it to be!
When the pandemic started, and everyone started cooking at home for the first time, and realizing they didn’t know how to make anything that was both healthy and easy, I had an idea. I decided I was going to start spilling my Italian in-laws’ secret recipes.
But then, like many 2020 plans, my brilliant “I’m going to blog about Italian food!!” idea fizzled out after just four recipes – and three of them were for cocktails. (My only actual food recipe of the year was Pasta with Lentils, from one of my dearest Italian chef-grandmothers. Another easy, meatless favorite.)
But hey, it’s not too late. We’re still here, and we’d have to eat even if we weren’t still locked-down. So I’m starting again.
Everyone knows Italian food is delicious and comforting, but the secret that doesn’t seem to have gotten out of Italy is that a lot of it is really easy to make, too. (And healthy, in so many ways.)
So today, I give you my second non-cocktail Italian recipe: Pasta with Broccoli.
BUT WAIT! Don’t click away – it’s not what you think! If you read “pasta with broccoli” and think of cold, semi-hard chunks of broccoli, perhaps with cold pasta and some other random vegetables and sun-dried tomatoes thrown in, or perhaps something tart and lemony, THIS IS NOT THAT.
This is warm, yet fresh. Rich, yet light. Simple, yet flavorful.
Like all my favorite recipes, there’s nothing fusion about it. I’ve never seen anything like this dish on a menu in the US – probably because it’s the kind of recipe that restaurants assume will sound too boring to anyone but Italians, who know that simplicity is what makes their cuisine great.
This one is my father-in-law’s recipe, and one of the first dishes in Italy that really surprised me. Four years later, it’s still part of the regular rotation in our house that we make almost every week.
Recipe: Claudio’s Pasta With Broccoli
First, let me say that the quantities in this recipe are guidelines more than rules. There are a few things you have to do right – make the soffritto before adding the broccoli; use enough salt in the water; not overcook the pasta – but the quantities are unbelievably flexible.
And that’s not just me talking. If you look up authentic recipes on Italian food blogs or in cookbooks, you’ll find a disconcerting number of ingredients with “QB” after them: Quanto basta. “However much it takes.”
What is Soffritto?
Soffritto in Italian literally means something like “under fried.” It’s when you gently sauté a few aromatic veggies in a pan with olive oil, and it’s the basis of many, many Italian pasta sauces. It can be made of many combinations of onion, garlic, celery, carrots, anchovies and herbs. (A similar thing is called mirepoix in French recipes.)
Here’s what you need if you’re cooking Pasta with Broccoli for two, and planning to have leftovers for lunch (this makes wonderful leftovers):
Garlic – QB. 2 to 4 cloves or so.
White or yellow onion – QB & optional. You can use just garlic, or add onion to the recipe for some sweetness. One small one is good, or half of a medium.
Anchovies – QB & totally optional, but they add a really nice (NON-FISHY, I swear) depth of flavor. You want just one or two of the salted kind in a jar, such as these, which are from a sustainable seafood company. (They seem expensive, but it’s because the order includes three jars! They keep forever in the fridge, but if you’re new to anchovies, I’d understand if you ordered this Italian brand from Amazon instead.)
Red pepper flakes – Optional. QB. All four of these – garlic, onion, anchovies and red pepper in a soffritto would be a lot, so just pick two or three.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – QB. About 3 tablespoons. The oil is what holds all the flavor, so don’t skimp and definitely don’t use regular vegetable oil. No butter either, and nothing “infused” – just olives. Here and here are a couple of good, organic options. (A mix of canola and any decent olive oil is fine too, but don’t tell Claudio or my husband about the canola.)
Broccoli – A good bunch or two. About a pound to a pound-and-a-half, or roughly 500 to 750 grams.
Water – NOT QB! Take a not-too-small pot (no less than 4 quarts) and fill it ¾ of the way full. This may seem like a silly ingredient to list, but pasta needs more room to move than we usually give in my outside-of-Italy experience.
Salt – Don’t under-salt the water! What I always hear in Italy: “Pasta water should taste like the sea.” Isn’t that poetic? But there’s a reason behind it – this is what gives the pasta flavor, and the idea is not to have to add salt (or not as much) at the table.
Pasta – About 8 oz, or 240 grams, or 2 cups by volume of any “short” pasta, like these penne or bowties. (Not a long pasta, like spaghetti, or anything too tiny, like macaroni.) What you usually hear in Italy as a “serving size” is about 80 grams of dry pasta. Do with that what you will. (The links above are for Montebello, an organic, Italian brand that’s quite good.)
Aged, freshly grated parmesan cheese – Optional as a topping and, of course, QB. Parmigiano Reggiano is what you want. (Like this one, which is authentic, but so is the kind I’ve found at Costco, and believe it or not, you can actually buy a smaller amount there. Or, go big and order an entire wheel.) Just please not the stuff in a can.
1. First, make your soffritto. Take a large sauté pan (about 12 inches across) and add the olive oil over medium-low heat with your onion and/or garlic and/or red pepper flakes and/or anchovies. Let it gently sizzle for a few minutes. If you’re using onions, you want them to get soft and nearly translucent. If you’re using anchovies, you want them disintegrated. That’s right – they just break up completely and become part of the oil. You can also add black pepper. Don’t burn the garlic.
2. Rinse and chop your broccoli. Any roughly bite-size chop will do. Definitely use the stems, but cut off the ends of them, especially anything dry or split, and peel or slice off the tough sides.
3. While the soffritto is cooking, fill your pasta pot ¾ full with water and turn on the heat. Don’t forget to watch your soffritto. When the water boils, add salt. At least THIS MUCH SALT:
4. After adding the salt, add the broccoli and cook (boiling gently) for about 6 to 10 minutes. When you can easily stab a piece of broccoli stem with a fork, it’s done.
5. Scoop the cooked broccoli out of the water (DON’T DUMP THE WATER) with a small colander or slotted spoon, and put it in with the soffritto. Sauté until the liquid is absorbed. This is your sauce.
6. As soon as you take the broccoli out of the water, put the pasta in the boiling broccoli water. Set a timer for 2 or 3 minutes less than what the package says.
7. A minute or so before the pasta is al-dente (on the harder side, but cooked), scoop it out with the colander (you can dump it, but save some of the water) and put it in the pan with the broccoli and soffritto. Add some of the pasta water (QB! QB! About a ¼ to ½ cup, or 60 to 120 mL.) and turn the heat to high. Stir and keep it all moving until the pasta absorbs all the liquid.
8. All done! Take it off the heat, let it sit for a minute, and serve. Extra Virgin Olive Oil and freshly grated, aged parmesan are two great toppings. Maybe a crack of pepper, too.
If you try this dish, let me know what you think below! Questions and recipe requests are welcome, too. 🙂
And don’t forget to experiment! Try your Broccoli Pasta with different flavor combinations in the soffritto. You can also try cutting the broccoli smaller versus leaving it bigger, and playing with the cooking time, to make the “sauce” chunkier, or almost closer to a pesto consistency. I like both.
Another thing I love about this dish, as with a lot of Italian home-cooking, is that it’s just really, truly simple, cheap, easy and meat-free. And you don’t have to modify it, or substitute ingredients to make it that way.
I really think that’s the answer to eating better, and eating more sustainably. Instead of trying switch to eating vegan or vegetarian overnight, try finding ways to love vegetables! This is certainly one of mine.
(For more about how Italians actually eat, and how healthy and sustainable I think it is, check out this post.)