A year ago, I wouldn’t have called myself a big fan of pasta. It wasn’t something in our regular dinner rotation, and I’ve never been keen on tomatoey red sauce. Visiting Italy changed that for me. There were so many varieties of pasta that were so simplified, and subtly saucy and extra al dente. This is my favorite kind of pasta. I wanted to create a pasta with tons of supporting ingredients (broccoli, sausage, lemon) and a silky barely-there sauce that coats the almost chewy pasta, and you wonder how pasta could ever taste so good. This rigatoni with broccoli, lemon, and sausage is just that. Among other things, it includes crushed fennel seed, thinly sliced garlic, and just a splash of cream to make the sauce extra silky.
It’s been ages since I’d eaten broccoli. What originally was an idea for a tray baked dinner with sausage, broccoli, and potatoes then turned into a delightfully tasty pasta. I love the little hints of lemon zest and the punch you get from the fennel seeds. If you don’t have Italian sausage, ground pork could work here, too! I also laud skipping the sausage if you wish, and instead maybe add some capers or if you’re feeling adventurous, anchovies. Anything salty will be delicious. These are not times for strict recipes or ingredient lists. You do you! Though I strongly encourage using heavy cream, I have been known to whisk together a little greek yogurt and milk as a substitute. Just don’t tell anyone. It could curdle, but you can temper it with pasta water. And I’m just not the kind of person who cares.
Before I sign off, just a few pasta cooking tips. I really hate overcooked soft pasta. There’s nothing better than a healthy chew to your pasta. Give it a chance if you’ve never tried it this way! Make sure you salt your water thoroughly, as the pasta absorbs some of that salt, giving it flavor! Add a good palmful of salt. I have been known to use a quarter cup of kosher salt. This is usually the right amount for four quarts. It will taste too salty, but it isn’t! Then however long the box instructions tell you to boil the pasta, subtract 3 minutes and begin tasting it at that point. If the box says 13-15 minutes, check it after 9 or 10 minutes for doneness. Overcooked pasta is a tragedy! On top of all that, we will continue cooking it for a full minute in the sauce. So when it’s a little chewy, do not fret. It keeps cooking in all that lovely sauce at the end.
I know you’ll enjoy this recipe! See the full recipe below.
- 1 lb rigatoni or other short pasta
- kosher salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lb ground Italian sausage
- 2 broccoli crowns, cut into 1 inch florets
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 tbsp fennel seed
- ½ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 tbsp lemon zest
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- In an 8 quart pot, bring 4 quarts of generously salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, crush the fennel seed with a mortar and pestle, spice grinder or in a plastic bag with a heavy pan. They should be somewhat crushed but not a powder. Set aside.
- In a large dutch oven or deep skillet over medium high heat, add your olive oil. Add the sausage, breaking up into dime sized pieces with a spatula as you cook, stirring every minute or so. Cook the sausage until it is browned and there are no longer any pink pieces when you cut them. Use a slotted spoon to remove the sausage to a bowl, leaving the fat behind. In the same pot, over medium high heat, add your onion, stirring and cooking until the onion is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, fennel, and red pepper flakes. Cook one additional minute. Remove from heat.
- In your boiling water, add your broccoli, and cook just 1-2 minutes, until the broccoli softens just slightly and is bright green. Remove using a slotted spoon, leaving the boiling water for the pasta. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente (about 10 minutes for rigatoni), reserving 1½ cups of pasta water.
- While the pasta cooks, add the broccoli to the pot with the onions and turn the heat to medium high again, cooking just 2 minutes while stirring. Taste the broccoli for salt, and add a few pinches if needed. Add the sausage back to the pan along with the lemon zest and lemon juice. Stir to coat and heat the sausage. Remove from heat while the pasta finishes cooking.
- Remember to reserve 1½ cups of pasta water. Drain the pasta into a colander and put the pasta immediately into the broccoli sauce, turning the burner to medium. Add the heavy cream, parmesan, and toss to coat. Add about half the pasta water and stir. If it still looks dry, add a little more pasta water until the sauce is as desired. Serve immediately and top with extra grated parmesan.