The flavors did

The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers is a magic hat of a book. Just when I think I’ve emptied it of every last trick, I fish around inside, and pull out something new.

I wasn’t even after a recipe late last Thursday night. Eli and I were traveling home on the T, and a couple of stops out, the conversation turned to chicken. We had two small birds in our fridge that we planned on roasting the following evening, and I casually mentioned – as casually as one can mention a thing like that – that we should rub them down with salt before bed. We knew that we should. We knew it was the right thing to do. But we couldn’t quite remember why. I mumbled something about texture, but the real answer was simple: Because Judy Rodgers told us so.

I didn’t come here today to tell you about chicken. I’m here to talk broccoli, capers, and breadcrumbs in unexpected places. It would be unkind, though, to deprive you of the chance to hear Judy Rodgers tell you so, too. It’s what happens next in this story, in any case.

The Zuni Café Cookbook is as lovely to read as it is to cook from. The only thing lovelier than reading and cooking from it is doing both at the same time, an act that requires two cooks in the kitchen, one on the bird, one on the book. While Eli began plucking, salting, and patting, I turned to a small masterpiece in the opening pages, “The Practice of Salting Early,” and read aloud. Rodgers opens with the story of a Paris restaurant at midnight, the site of her first awakening to the power of this practice. About a page in, she offers the following explanation:

Aside from simply allowing time to diffuse the seasoning throughout the food, which is reason enough to try the technique, early salting also promotes juiciness and improves texture. This is the felicitous result of a few reliable processes. First, salt helps dissolve some of the proteins within and around muscle fibers that would otherwise resist chewing. A second process is more complex. Initially, salt does draw moisture from cells – whence the widely accepted belief that it dries food out. However, the quiet trauma of osmosis is temporary. With time, the cells reabsorb moisture in reverse osmosis. When they do, that moisture is seasoned with salt.

I honestly cannot say whether I find this woman’s food or her words more captivating. With only a couple of raw, salted chickens in the kitchen that night, I decided to fill up on the latter. I toted the volume to bed, and paged through the recipes, past old favorites like panades, crostinis, and mushroom plates, and on-decks like sage grilled cheese and ricotta gnocchi. I was about to switch off the light, when the book fell open to something I hadn’t noticed before, something called “Pasta with Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower.” I saw capers and anchovies, garlic and fennel. I read on, and in the denouement – a word entirely suited to the resolution of Judy Rodgers’s recipes, I promise you – came the following words, “Taste – every flavor should be clamoring for dominance.” I was sold.

Eli and I have fallen into the habit of Sunday supper over the last couple of years. For us, it’s something between a late lunch and an early dinner, usually taken in the 4 or 5 o’ clock hour (hence the fading blue-ish light in these photographs). The fare is always simple: a pot of soup, a loaf of bread, maybe a wedge of cheese. Often, it’s a meal scraped together from the week’s last scraps which, this past Sunday, included two heads of broccoli lurking in the crisper drawer. Perfect. Sunday supper is no time to fuss, so I made Judy Rodgers’s “Pasta with Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower” with what I had on hand. That meant no cauliflower. I also replaced the olives with an extra scoop of capers, since Eli’s not an olive man. (No one’s perfect.) I dropped the broccoli into the oil and left it alone to brown and frizzle around the edges, as Rodgers said it would. I pushed the chopped capers from the cutting board next, and once they had shriveled and crisped, the anchovies, garlic, and fennel seeds. Only then did I give the whole thing a stir, and scatter several three-fingered pinches of dried chili flakes over top. I do as I am told, so then, I tasted. Clamor, the flavors did.

By then, the pasta was ready to drain; the breadcrumbs were toasted and warm. Ah, the breadcrumbs! Rodgers lists them as an optional ingredient, and I almost did without them. Why would I want bread on my pasta? Well. It turns out that these breadcrumbs are about as optional as the pour of milk in my Earl Grey tea, which is to say, not optional at all. Pasta with breadcrumbs, or “pasta con il pangrattato,” is pasta that crunches, people. Pasta that tastes like toast! It’s apparently some kind of Italian culinary institution, an age-old solution to dressing up a bowl of pasta when more expensive ingredients like meat are scarce. I had no idea. Now I know.

I also know something else, courtesy of Tuesday dinner: this broccoli and breadcrumbs is equally delicious over a bowl of brown rice. Just to be certain, on Thursday, I confirmed it.

In case you’re wondering, the chicken was good, too.

Pasta with Spicy Broccoli (and Cauliflower)
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

In her exposition, Judy Rodgers encourages us to experiment within the loosely drawn borders of her recipe: “You can try minced fennel bulb in lieu of seeds for a sweeter, more subtle note, or dash both and use freshly chopped mint instead. Substitute pecorino romano if you don’t feel like bread crumbs, trade black olives for green ones, or skip the olives and add more capers or anchovies.” Except for that bit about leaving out the crumbs (heaven forbid!), it all sounds good to me. The following list of ingredients reflects my own take on the recipe. I skipped the 4 to 5 tablespoons of coarsely chopped pitted olives (I upped the capers, instead) and the 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley that Rodgers includes in the original recipe. And I suggest using slightly less pasta than the 1 pound that Rodgers recommends; I prefer a tighter broccoli to pasta ratio.

About 1 cup (about 2 ounces) fresh breadcrumbs made from slightly stale country bread, crusts removed (In a pinch one night, I used panko breadcrumbs from a canister, and I'd do it again.)
¼ cup olive oil, plus an additional 2-3 Tbsps
¾ pound pasta (I used spaghetti)
Two medium-large heads of broccoli with a few inches of stem intact (or one head of broccoli, and one of cauliflower; about 24 ounces, total)
4 heaped Tbsps of capers, drained and dried lightly between towels
6-8 salt-packed anchovy fillets (if you increase the amount of anchovies, remember to adjust the salt in the opposite direction)
6 garlic cloves
½ tsp. fennel seeds
4-8 hefty, three-fingered pinches of dried chili flakes
A splash or two of rice vinegar for deglazing the pan
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Toss the breadcrumbs with 2 tsps. of olive oil, and shake into a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 4-5 minutes, until golden. Keep the crumbs on the stovetop until needed.

Put up a pot of water to boil. When it does, add the pasta, and cook until al dente.

Slice the broccoli lengthwise into 1/8-inch pieces. You’ll have some pieces that are all stalk, some that are all flower, and some that are a little bit of both. If the strips of stalk look too long to you, chop them in half.

Pound the fennel seeds lightly in a mortar, and chop the capers with a single pass of the knife. Then, coarsely chop the anchovies and garlic.

Warm the ¼ cup oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add most of the sliced broccoli. Leave the tiny buds and bits behind for now so that they don’t burn. Salt very lightly (keeping in mind the saltiness of the anchovies), and swirl the pan for a second or two. Then, put it down on the burner and leave it alone. That part is very important. You want to give the broccoli time to brown and frizzle, so don’t touch it for a good 3-5 minutes.

Drizzle with another tablespoonful of olive oil, and scrape the remaining broccoli and capers into the pan. Shake gently so that the tiny buds and capers fall to the bottom of the pan and crisp up. Still do not stir. After another 3 minutes, reduce the heat, scatter the anchovies, garlic, fennel, and chili over the broccoli, and then only then, give it a gentle stir. Cook for another minute or two. If there are a lot of brown bits clinging to the bottom of the pan, splash with rice vinegar, and scrape them up with a wooden spatula.

When the pasta is ready – just a few minutes after you’ve finished the broccoli, hopefully – drain and toss with the broccoli in the pan. Garnish with the warm, toasted breadcrumbs.

Serves 4-6.


Katherine said...

you know...it's actually good that Eli's not an olive man. i don't know if this is a commonly known italian proverb, or just one that runs in my family - but it says that if two people are meant to be together one person must love olives and one must not. that's the case with me and my husband, my parents, and many other marriages i know. so there you go. this dish looks amazing, by the way.

Sophie said...

you make me want to instantly run out and buy that book!

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

The idea of a Sunday supper is so special. So much of our food culture we've lost to our busy schedules, but Sunday you still can slow down, take a deep breathe, and have a relaxing meal before the week sets in. And your pasta dish (with breadcrumbs!) sounds like it did just that!

linda said...

i enjoy prepping & cooking the zuni cafe roasted chicken…i like her method of roasting.
i never noticed this pasta recipe & i thank you for highlighting it…the ingredients look great…although... i am with eli on the olives & my husband confirms your preference!

btw: taking the second walnut cake mini loaf out of freezer & will definitely be toasting…the first loaf went too fast!
thanks for the link to the cinnamon walnut bread.

Rogue Unicorn said...

Do you think this recipe will survive a lack of capers and anchovies? I don't like capers (no one's perfect) and my sister won't go near an anchovy (to my great dismay), but I do like the idea of broccoli and breadcrumbs.

Michele Napoli said...

Perfect, Jess, for Sunday supper. I think that I'll be making this tonight!

Molly said...

Strangely: I was on the T last night, a few stops from home, talking about chicken, too. It was late, and we were hungry, and I was wondering what to cook. Much later, after a harried and forgettable meal of salmon and lentils, I checked the web, and there was your post! I immediately lamented a. not roasting a chicken a la Judy Rodgers or b. making pasta with spicy broccoli. I love the Zuni Cafe Cookbook but I've never made this before, which is a shame, as it sounds delicious. I'll have to remedy that soon. xo

Adrienne said...

Ah, wonderful! I haven't spent much time with Zuni lately as I've got so many school sanctioned recipes on the brain, but I do appreciate the reminder.

Jess said...

Good morning, all!

I like this proverb, Katherine. I think your family is on to something. Eli and I have long lived by a different, but possibly related, philosophy called "more for me, then." He doesn't like sweet potatoes. "More for me, then." He doesn't like anything almond flavored except for almonds themselves. "More for me, then." It seems to be working for us.

Sophie - Do it! You won't be sorry.

A Plum By Any Other Name - I agree. It's definitely a habit worth keeping up. We also have a special meal every Friday night, but it's usually more formal. Sunday supper feels to me like a deep breath before the week begins.

Linda - Well, according to Katherine (a few comments above yours), you and your husband are a perfect match! I wish I had a walnut cake in my freezer right now...

Hmmm, Rogue Unicorn, I don't know. For me, the strong flavors of the capers and the anchovies (and the breadcrumbs, of course) are what make this dish. But yes, I think that you can take it in a different direction. It will just be, well, different. Are you down with the chili flakes and the fennel seeds? And do you like olives (instead of the capers)? Just like that, I think the dish would be wonderful. Some other possible additions in case the fennel and/or the olives are also out: mint, as Judy Rodgers suggests; lemon zest; ground toasted walnuts, almonds, or pecans...

Hi, Michele. So happy to hear it! Enjoy.

Molly, hello! I will make this for you soon. xo.

Seriously, Adrienne, you are awesome. When I read about all of the various dishes that you're currently learning to master my head starts to spin. It's no wonder that your poor cookbooks are gathering dust. For when you have a break (do cooks cook when on break from cooking?), this recipe's a winner.

Molly Parr said...

Thanks for posting! Santa brought me the Zuni Cafe Cookbook for Christmas this year, and I am slowly cooking my way through it. The panade works really well with kale. (Yum!) I've been eyeing this recipe for a while, but never seem to have broccoli on hand. Maybe I'll make it tomorrow with the cauliflower I have in the fridge.

Jess said...

Hi, Molly. Your Santa is awesome. I also use kale in the panade, and I agree that it's a perfect fit. I hope you'll enjoy this recipe with the cauliflower. I need to remember to pick up a head the next time I'm at the market so that I can try this dish with the cruciferous mix that Judy Rodgers prescribes.

claiborne said...

One of my cherished cookbooks, too-right down to the delicious cover shot. How did I miss this pasta recipe, too? Thanks for shining a light on it-am now eager to try all those brilliant flavors packed in there together.

If you're so inclined, I recommend making her brandied sour cherries next summer-they really do take the edge off of winter, and we're hanging onto our last jar here: http://www.butteredbreadblog.com/2010/06/sour-cherries.html

molly said...

Butter-crisped breadcrumbs on pasta fall under the 'revelations' category, in my book. I cannot fathom how I've missed this page. Bedtime reading selection: check.

Danielle said...

This looks delicious. Is that word overused? Too bad. I can't wait to try it out. I'll also need to find that cookbook. Breadcrumbs have been popping into my life lately (most recently in a kale salad), and I am happy to oblige!

Danielle said...

And another thing: things are looking great around here! I love the changes. I'm happy you included the FAQ. I enjoy the almonds.

Jess said...

Hi, Claiborne. It seems as if a bunch of us missed this recipe, somehow. It makes me wonder what else is flying under my radar in this book - in all of my favorite cookbooks, actually. I'm off now to visit your brandied sour cherries. Thanks for the link!

It was, indeed, a revelation, Molly, and I don't think I'll ever get over it. Breadcrumbs! Who would've thought?

Hi, Danielle. Don't even get me started on how the word "delicious" has been vilified. Sometimes something is simply delicious, and this dish certainly falls into that category. If you ask me, well said. I'm so glad that you like the changes around here. Thank you for saying.

Stephanie said...

Hi Jess! It's been awhile since I've been by (the holidays had me in a vice grip), but I'm always so delighted when I finally catch up. As always, your pictures and writing are wonderful. And I love the new banner!

As for this recipe, I'm definitely going to make it this week. I love things that crunch and I love pasta, so this would seem to be a good match for my tastes. Oh and I love broccoli, capers, and all the other ingredients, too.

Thanks for sharing!

Rebecca Martin said...

Thanks for this recipe! I just made a pared-down version (sans - don't cringe - the anchovies and fennel seed, which I didn't have on-hand). It was still quite tasty, though I can see how the missing flavors would add a more enjoyable robustness. You are right: the toasted bread crumbs are a revelation. And this was my first cooked meal post-baby! Felt so good.

. . . And as always, I very much enjoy your writing.

Clarice said...

I particularly love the second photo--the candles, the blue light and the water pitcher, and then of course, the pasta! I enjoy recipes that offer all sorts of ingredient options. Thanks!

Gail said...

Hi Jess
Congrats on the coming move. Looking forward to your future posts and pics. I wonder if broccoli rabe would work in place of the broccoli? Can't wait to try this recipe but I think I'll add the olives too.

Enjoyed a nice afternoon with Kasey on Saturday as we celebrated Carolyn's birthday.

Jess said...

Hello, Stephanie, and thank you so much! I'm glad you've made it safely to the other side of the holidays. Sometimes it feels like we need a holiday after the holidays, doesn't it? Happy pasta and broccoli making, and happy 2011!

Rebecca, did you say post-baby? Congratulations!! I'm honored that you marked your triumphant return to the kitchen with this dish. I'm not cringing, I promise. I have no doubt that your version was delicious. And I'm happy to hear that I'm not the only one to go crazy over those crumbs. (p.s. Thank you for your kind words about my writing. I really appreciate it.)

Thank you, Clarice. I hope you'll enjoy this recipe, in whichever form you choose to make it.

A resounding YES to your broccoli rabe question, Gail. Great idea! I would like to eat this pasta with broccoli rabe for lunch right now, as a matter of fact. Happy birthday to Carolyn! Also: You have a blog! It's lovely.

Nisrine|Dinners and Dreams said...

The Zuni Cafe is a book I love and have wanted for some time. Great recipe!

Jess said...

Thanks, Nisrine. About the book: It is absolutely worth the investment.

El said...

What a beautiful Sunday supper. The dish looks wonderful.

Jess said...

Thank you, El.