Broccoli's saucy side

Italians cook broccoli longer than we do in the United States, until it is quite a bit softer and darker than we are accustomed to. This has its advantages, because soft broccoli can be mashed with the back of a spoon, and the broken-down vegetable is very nice as a sauce with pasta.

I took the Italian approach recently, but I cooked the broccoli for only 5 to 6 minutes initially (Italians cook it for twice as long), which is long enough to render it soft but not so long that the broccoli loses its bright color and fresh flavor. I chopped the cooked broccoli finely, then melted anchovies in olive oil with garlic, added the broccoli, moistened it with some pasta cooking water and cooked it a little more.

I tossed this heady mixture with fusilli, a perfect marriage of pasta and sauce, as the broccoli, now almost puréed and perfectly seasoned, lodged in the coils of the fusilli in the most delightful way.

This is Italian country cooking at its best, a simple dish that requires few ingredients and very little time. Use the same pot of water that you use to cook the broccoli for the pasta. Then finish the broccoli and anchovy mixture in a pan while the pasta is cooking, and toss the pasta with the sauce right in the pan. It’s a great way to elevate broccoli from ubiquitous side dish — one that, let’s face it, we can get bored with — to the center of the plate.

Fusilli with Broccoli and Anchovies

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 generous bunch broccoli (about 1 3/4 pounds)

Salt and black pepper

1 pound fusilli pasta

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 to 5 anchovy fillets (to taste), rinsed and chopped

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

Freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino, for serving

Preparation

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Cut broccoli crowns from stems, leaving about 1 inch of stem at the base of each crown; set aside thick stems for another purpose.

2. Salt boiling water generously and add broccoli. Boil 5 to 6 minutes, until tender enough to break apart with a fork.

3. Using a skimmer, tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer broccoli crowns to a bowl of cold water (do not drain water from pot). Drain broccoli, then blot on paper towels. Chop fine.

4. Bring water in pot back to a boil and add fusilli.

5. While fusilli is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in a wide, heavy skillet and add garlic, anchovies and red pepper flakes, if using. Cook, stirring and mashing anchovies with the back of a wooden spoon, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in chopped broccoli.

6. Add a ladle or two (about 1/2 cup) of the pasta water to the broccoli, season to taste with salt and pepper and stir over medium heat for 5 minutes. Broccoli should be very soft. Remove another ladle of pasta water and set aside.

7. Drain pasta and toss at once with broccoli and remaining olive oil. Add water you set aside if you think it needs more moisture. Serve at once, sprinkled with cheese.