Orecchiette pasta with turnip tops: the ultimate recipe

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Orecchiette is a traditional dish from Puglia, notably Bari city, you must really taste and try to cook if you want to fully experience the atmosphere of the Italian “heel”.

Simple, flavorful, and toothsome, orecchiette with turnip tops, belongs to the genuine peasant tradition- it matches rustic and strong tastes for an unbelievable temping dish! Give it a try.

orecchiette cime di rapa

This pasta dish is commonly widespread all over Puglia: it is not only paired with turnip tops, but also with broccoli, or tomato sauce. Turnip tops are not available all around the year and they are not grown everywhere. So don’t worry: if you can’t find them you may use broccoli as they taste the same.

Low in calorie and high in nutrients, turnip tops are very rich in fibers, iron, potassium, folic acid, vitamin C and vitamin A; they are a good source of antioxidants and are thought to have antitumoral properties (along with a balanced diet and a regular lifestyle). 

What are turnip tops?

They are NOT the leaves of the turnip. To be honest, you can eat some of them, but turnip greens refer to the stem, the leafy green and the still close florets. They are the edible parts of a Botanic sub-species, the sylvestris, which belongs to the Brassicaceae family, order brassicales, species B rapa (the same as the ordinary turnip).

Evidently, turnip tops (trinomial nomenclature Brassica rapa sylvestris) are classified into a wide range of varieties according to: shape, period of seeding and blossoming, … but I think that’s enough, otherwise the matter will get difficult and boring!

Buy the right product!

“I have always bought small bunches of green and red, or green and white leaves!”

Unfortunately, if you can’t identify the products very well, you may easily make a few mistakes. Don’t not buy any bunches which have only leaves, because they may be tops and turnips indeed, but turnip tops refer to a specific plant (Sub-species, the sylvestris), so you don’t want any other leaves or roots (Sub-species rapa). The latter are edible but they are low in nutrients, and until few years ago, they were mostly used as animal feed. Actually, the leaves of the common turnips, the Brassica rapa rapa, is what you should discard, even if it may be edible.

In order to avoid any sorts of ‘misunderstanding’, you should look for bunches which both leaves and florets. This is the suitable product you need for our recipe! 

orecchiette cime di rapa

Let’s shed some light on the different names

Broccoli, sprouts, broccoli rabe, turnip tops. Wow! It is such a mess. Are they the same! Let me explain that!

Friarielli (or broccoli rabe) are the part of the turnip tops which have grown the most. They are commonly used in Neapolitan dishes, such as topping of the famous pizza with friarielli and sausages.

You should know that in Italy, dialects are still quite strong, so the same product may get different names according to the Region. I am Italian born and bred, but often I have to ask what an ingredients is called in different parts of Italy; names may change from area to area, from city to city.

For instance, in Rome they are called “broccoletti” (but they are not broccoli indeed, they are from the family of the broccolo cabbage); in Puglia they are known are “cime di rapa” (top turnips) and in Tuscany “rapini”.

When we speak about “friarielli” we usually mean only the leaves, whereas brocoletti refer to both the big “flower” among the leaves.

Orecchiette: easy to make! I will tel you hoe to prepare them!

Orecchiette is fresh pasta from durum wheat flour; well known and appreciated all around the world, it is the culinary symbol of Puglia.

Its curved shape, which wonderfully pairs with every kind of sauce, is the result of a particular hand made process, where only three fingers are used: a nugget of dough is dragged onto a pastry board. That’s why the sauce perfectly clings to its rough irregular surface which thinner in the middle and thicker on the external side: this kind of pasta combines with the traditional turnip tops, a simple tomato sauce, or the tempting broccoli and sausages. In Puglia, this delicacy has got several names, but the most common ones are “recchie or recchietelle” (small ears) because their shape slightly resembles that of small ears. Fresh orecchiette pasta takes about 5 minutes to be done, a little longer if it is dry. Anyway, follow the cooking time on the package, but taste it before draining.

orecchiette italian come di rapa

Which is the secret of this dish?

Actually the secret is cooking the vegetables with pasta; your dish will turn out good with a little practice and some knowledge of the main ingredients. And I am here to help you.

Well, do you want to know a piece of wisdom? In the past, poor farmers and peasants could not afford cheese which used to be very expensive, so they replaced it with stale bread: they crumbled and toasted it with a little oil in a hot pan. They pretend to have some cheese on their pasta.

Orecchiette pasta with turnip tops

Orecchiette with turnip tops, a traditional recipe from Puglia (which is the heel of the “Italian boot), wants only simple ingredients: flour and water for the pasta, healthy vegetables for the sauce, a little hot chili pepper and the anchovies makes you taste the sea. For a perfect vegetarian dish, anchovies may be well replaced with black olive pasta 
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Keyword cime di rapa, orecchiette cime di rapa, Orecchiette pasta with turnip tops, orecchiette pugliesi, turnip orecchiette
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 12 minutes
Servings 4 people

Ingredients

  • 300 gr fresh or dry orecchiette 
  • 1 kg turnip tops (leaves and floret)
  • 50 gr breadcrumbs 
  • 1 fresh red hot chili pepper 
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3 salt- or oil-packed anchovy fillets or 2 tsp of black olive paste (made from Ligurian olives would be the best one)
  • coarse and fine salt 
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 

Instructions

  • Clean the turnip tops: discard the external larger leaves and the stalks. With the help of a sharp knife, remove the soft leaves and the floret. If you buy medium high quality turnip tops, you will have about 500 gr of edible product.
  • Properly rinse under running water and dry them. Put aside.
  • Fill a large stock pot with plenty of salted water and bring it to a boil over high heat. 
  • In the meanwhile, in a pan with 1 tbsp and half of oil, toast the breadcrumbs until golden over medium heat.
  • When the water boils, add the turnip tops and cook for 5 minutes. 
  • Rinse the anchovies under running water to wash off the salt and soak them in water for about 10 minutes. Now they are plump and flexible so you can fillet them easier. You don’t need to clean them if you use oil-packed anchovies. 
  • In another pan heat the remaining oil with the fresh chili pepper and the crushed unpeeled  garlic clove; add the anchovy fillets you have prepared (if you use oil-packed anchovies, drain it from their oil). 
  • Sauté over medium-low heat, otherwise high temperatures will make the oil and the anchovies bitter. Simmer it very very slowly (I am allergy to fish, so I replace anchovies with black olive paste; you can do the same if yo don’t like, or can’t eat fish). 
  • Stir with a wooden spoon until the anchovy fillets have melt, or the olive paste is well combined; 
  • Cook for a few minutes, remove from the heat and discard the garlic; 
  • After the turnip tops have cooked for 5 minutes add the orecchiette and follow the cooking time on the package; stir gently. 
  • When done, drain orecchiette with the turnip tops- remember to save a scoop of cooking water: you may need it in case the sauce gets too thick. Pour them into the pan with the anchovies sauce. 
  • Sauté gently and season with salt.
  • Taste it! If it needs, add some more oil. A genuine man from Puglia likes very rich food, but it is a matter of personal taste, so season to your own. 
  • Remove from the heat, place orecchiette in dishes and top with a drizzle of olive oil and the toasted breadcrumbs.

How long does orecchiette pasta with turnip tops last?

It is a delicacy you have to share with your family. You can also save it into a serving bowl: place it in the middle of the table and everyone will help themselves.

If you have any left, orecchiette with turnip tops lasts in the fridge for no more than one day.

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