This is an Italian way with broccoli which cooks the florets in milk or cream until they break up into a creamy vegetable sauce. Carluccio, in An Invitation to Italian Cooking pairs the sauce with Sardinian gnocchi and I haven’t found another sauce for these shapes that is as well matched. However, do not let the shapes detract from making this sauce, it will work with just about any pasta shape, especially orecchiette. The sauce appears on spaghetti in the Silver Spoon cook book and conchiglie in the blue River Cafe Cook Book. Marcella Hazan, in Classic Italian Cooking, creates a similar smooth sauce from the florets of broccoli (but omits the cream and adds anchovies). Her sauce is paired with penne. I have adapted the Carluccio method here. There is a odd chemistry at play with milk – rather like the Italian way of cooking pork shoulder in milk – it seems counter-intuitive, and initially the milk does curdle and gives an impression of a disaster in the making. But persevere, just as in the pork recipe, the milk will come together and make an unctuous conduit for the broccoli. Some recipes say to blend the broccoli, but I feel the interest of the sauce is in the individual buds of the florets becoming supspended in the sauce. We serve it with salad, roast chicken and crusty bread, but this is an indulgence, for many years in our family it was served just as it is for dinner.
NB: I tend to reach for wine and stock to add extra flavour to my sauces – however, both can be omitted. Cook the broccoli initially in water instead of stock (step 2 below). Where I mention wine, just use more milk (step 3). Also note that the broccoli is cooked twice, initially in stock (or water) and then in milk (step 4).
- Boil the pasta. Allow 1 litre of water per 100g of pasta. Add a hefty pinch of salt and bring to the boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain reserving a cup of the cooking liquid.
- Cook the broccoli the first time in stock (or water). Separate the broccoli florets from the stalks. Recipes tend to use the florets only, but I prefer not to waste the nutritious stalks. Peel and discard any tough outer parts of the stalks and chop into a dice. Add to a pan with the stock (or water). Bring to a simmer and cook covered for 5 minutes, then add the florets and steam for 5 minutes. Drain the liquid into a bowl and reserve. Set the broccoli aside.
- Start the sauce. Chop the onion and garlic. In a large pan, gently fry the onion and pancetta in olive oil for 5 minutes (without burning), add the garlic and continue cooking until the onion is soft. Add the wine (if using) and let it boil for a minute.
- Cook broccoli the second time in milk. Add the pre-cooked broccoli and the reserved liquid used in the initial cooking. Add about 700ml of milk. Bring to a boil and simmer with a lid ajar for 10-15 minutes. Check the broccoli to ensure it is soft and turning to a sauce, adding more milk as necessary.
- Finish the sauce. Grate the parmesan and add about 75g to the broccoli sauce and stir to mix well. Add the drained gnocchi and stir to combine. Season to taste. The sauce should be creamy and rather loose – adjust the consistency with the reserved pasta cooking liquid, necessary.
- Serve. Plate the pasta and serve with the extra Parmesan.