I attended college in the city where I was born, Bologna, while still living at home. Sort of. My mother put up with my comings and goings at all hours, creeping in at 5 in the morning; inviting friends for lunch or dinner at the drop of a hat; shutting myself in my room for marathon study sessions. No questions asked, provided I kept my grades up.
Days on end were spent at my friend Roberta’s who, at the age of 16, was given her own apartment, conveniently located a stone’s throw from my house. Roberta loved to cook and we lived through a macrobiotic period, amongst many others, the results of which are a collection of recipes that sometimes pop out of one or other of my cookery books: I never make them but I keep them around to remind me of those times. Roberta gifted me the recipes when I moved to London, where my cooking skills, or lack thereof, were not exactly honed.
Like all young people taking their first steps into the big wide world, I felt an innate need to demarcate my territory, even in matters of food, which is why I embraced everything that did not reek of home: burgers, spuds, bangers and mash, vegetable stews, curries and Chinese staples were all dishes that never made an entrance in my mother’s kitchen. Even when it came to pasta, which I have always adored, I tended to gravitate towards simple recipes I picked up from one friend or another. It was a long time before I could come full circle and appreciate the bounty around which I grew up.
I can’t quite recall where my fondness for pasta with broccoli came from, maybe from my friend Roberta. Over the years, it has been a staple for feeding vegetables to the vegetable-averse in my family. Also, it is so easy and quick, it comes in handy when I am pressed for time. Over the years, it has been modified and, if you are not vegetarian, the grown-up version features either bacon or anchovy fillets. To the basic recipe, you could also add some toasted almonds for protein. Or maybe some sausage. Take your pick and maybe let me know what you come up with.
- Start with a bunch of broccoli. Remove the thick stems and break the broccoli into small florets. Cook them in boiling, salted water for about 5 minutes, until fairly tender, more tender than if you were serving them as a side dish.
- Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon, bring the water back to boil and cook the pasta in it.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat some olive oil in a large pan. Add some minced or smashed garlic and red pepper flakes to taste. Let them sizzle for a minute and throw in the broccoli, which you will have cut in small bites. Add salt and pepper and cook for a few minutes. If they get too dry, add a few spoonfuls of the cooking water. Break them up further with a wooden spoon as they cook, so that, essentially, you will get a sauce.
- Drain the pasta, throw it back in the pot with a good helping of olive oil and the broccoli sauce. Serve immediately and dust generously with either Parmesan or Pecorino cheese.