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Cooking | Magazine

Recipes: Pasta dishes that take a break from red sauce

Broccoli, spinach, and asparagus step in for tomatoes in these three simple weeknight dishes.

Rigatoni With Roman Broccoli Sauce.
Rigatoni With Roman Broccoli Sauce.Connie Miller of CB Creatives
Logo for magazine's cooking column w/ Christopher Kimball and cooks of Milk Street.

It’s a common misconception that tomatoes are the Italian standard for saucing pasta. Sure, they lend an acidic, savory sweetness, but they are hardly the only option. In these recipes, rigatoni comes dressed in a light, bright puree of broccoli, capers, and pepper flakes, with a boost from baby spinach to preserve the sauce’s bright green color. Already spiced Italian sausage adds depth to a lightly garlicky sauce for orecchiette with crisp-tender broccoli rabe and fragrant fennel seeds. And lemon juice and zest brighten the silky sauce of our Pasta With Creamy Asparagus.

Rigatoni With Roman Broccoli Sauce

Makes 4 servings


Romans use the leaves that grow around heads of broccoli to make a flavorful sauce for pasta. In the United States, most of the leaves are stripped off before broccoli is sold. Our recipe instead uses the stems, which are equally flavorful and produce a silky sauce. Baby spinach maintains the color of the original recipe.

Undercooking the broccoli stems could throw the sauce off. We’re accustomed to cooking vegetables until crisp-tender, but the stems here should be cooked until fully tender.

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

1 pound broccoli, stems and florets separated

1 1⁄2 cups packed baby spinach

2 medium garlic cloves, chopped

4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) salted butter, cut into 4 pieces

1 tablespoon drained capers

1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest, divided

12 ounces rigatoni pasta

1 ounce pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, finely grated (1⁄2 cup), plus more to serve

In a large pot, bring 4 quarts water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil. Peel the broccoli stems, reserving any leaves, and cut crosswise into 1⁄2-inch rounds. Add the stems and leaves to the boiling water and cook until fully tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the spinach and cook until wilted, about 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to a blender; reserve 1⁄2 cup of the cooking water. Keep the water at a boil.


Cut the broccoli florets into 1- to 1 1⁄2-inch pieces. Add the florets to the boiling water and cook until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Using the slotted spoon, transfer to a colander and rinse under cold water until cooled. Again keep the water at a boil.

To a blender, add the garlic, butter, capers, pepper flakes, 3⁄4 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon of the lemon zest, and the reserved broccoli cooking water. Puree until smooth and bright green, about 30 seconds. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Stir the rigatoni into the boiling water and cook until al dente. Reserve about 1⁄2 cup of the cooking water, then drain. Return pasta to the pot and add the broccoli florets, the broccoli puree, 1⁄4 cup of the reserved cooking water (or as much as needed for the sauce to cling to the pasta), the remaining 1 tablespoon lemon zest, and the cheese.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens slightly and the pasta is well coated, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Pasta With Creamy Asparagus

Makes 4 servings

This lively springtime pasta dish is inspired by a recipe from River Cafe London: Thirty Years of Recipes and the Story of a Much-Loved Restaurant, a recent cookbook from Britain’s landmark restaurant. The asparagus is finely chopped in the food processor; half is sautéed until tender and half is kept al dente for pleasing contrast in texture. A cup of cream binds the asparagus into a silky sauce just thick enough to coat the pasta, while a sprinkle of lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice at the table brighten up the flavors.


2 pounds asparagus, tough ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

8 ounces wide, flat pasta, such as tagliatelle or fettuccine

1 tablespoon salted butter

2 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 medium shallots, halved and thinly sliced

1 cup heavy cream

1⁄4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more to serve

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, plus lemon wedges to serve

In a food processor, pulse the asparagus until finely chopped, about 15 pulses. Measure out 1 1⁄2 cups chopped asparagus and set aside.

In a large pot, bring 4 quarts water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt and the pasta, then cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water, then drain. Meanwhile, in a non-stick 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic, shallots, and 1 teaspoon salt, then cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the asparagus from the processor and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Add the cream and the reserved 1 1⁄2 cups asparagus, then bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until a spoon drawn through the mixture leaves a 2-second trail, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the Parmesan and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt.


Add the drained pasta and 1⁄4 cup of the reserved cooking water to the asparagus-cream mixture and
set the pan over medium heat. Toss, adding cooking water 1 tablespoon at a time as needed, until the sauce is silky and clings to the pasta. Stir in the lemon zest, then taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve with additional Parmesan and lemon wedges.

Pasta With Sausage and Broccoli Rabe.
Pasta With Sausage and Broccoli Rabe.Connie Miller of CB Creatives

Pasta With Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

Makes 4 servings

Orecchiette, pasta resembling “little ears,” is the classic choice for this dish; its shape is ideal for catching bits of the broccoli rabe. If you can’t find orecchiette, campanelle is a good substitute; it cooks in about
the same time. Adding the broccoli rabe in two stages gives the dish textural interest, as some pieces will be fully tender and almost saucy, while others retain a bit of bite. To crush the fennel seeds, pulse a few times in a spice or coffee grinder or use a mortar and pestle.

Once everything is in the skillet, the pan will be filled to the brim; the easiest way to stir is with two spatulas and a gentle tossing motion. Remember to mix water into the sausage. The water loosens it, making it easier to break into pieces while cooking so that it’s more evenly distributed.


12 ounces hot Italian sausage, casings removed

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

12 ounces orecchiette pasta

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided, plus more to serve

6 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

2 tablespoons fennel seeds, crushed

1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 bunch broccoli rabe, trimmed and finely chopped (about 8 cups), divided

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (1⁄2 cup), plus more to serve

In a medium bowl, combine the sausage with ‚ 1/3 cup water. Stir with a fork until well combined; set aside. In a large pot, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the orecchiette, then cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes; the pasta should be tender at the edges but still firm at the center. Drain in a colander set in a large heat-safe bowl; reserve the cooking water and pasta separately.

To a 12-inch skillet set over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon of oil and the garlic. Cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to brown, about 2 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic, then add the sausage. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally and breaking the meat into small pieces, until the sausage is no longer pink and begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the fennel seeds, pepper flakes, half of the broccoli rabe, and 1⁄2 cup of the reserved cooking water, then stir to combine. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rabe is just tender, about 3 minutes.

Stir in another 1 1⁄2 cups of the reserved cooking water, the remaining broccoli rabe, and the pasta, then bring to a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rabe is tender and the pasta is al dente, another 3 to 5 minutes, adding more cooking water as needed so the sauce clings to the pasta.

Off heat, stir in the Parmesan and the remaining
1 tablespoon oil, then taste and season with salt and black pepper. Serve with additional Parmesan and oil.

Christopher Kimball is the founder of Milk Street, home to a magazine, school, and radio and television shows. Globe readers get 12 weeks of complete digital access, plus two issues of Milk Street print magazine, for just $1. Go to 177milkstreet.com/globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.