Penne and broccoli is one of the simplest and most satisfying dishes in my repertoire. Generally, the only thing I may have to purchase in order to make this meal a reality is a broccoli crown. It is “pantry cooking” at its finest. I have yet again to offer thanks to Marc Bittman* for dish, although my preparation includes a few crucial variations from his original recipe. I started making this when I was first learning to cook, and it was because of this dish that I began speculating about flavor combinations and what it meant to alter a recipe with success. In general, many mistakes were made as I fine-tuned this skill, however this dish is close to foolproof.
If you Google “penne with broccoli,” you will find many minor variations on the same theme. Some call for Parmesan, some Romano, and some do not require cheese at all. This is actually one of the few pasta dishes that I would potentially accept without cheese, but why deprive yourself? Some recipes call for hot pepper flakes; some call for flat leaf parsley; some call for neither. Ultimately, the variety amongst the recipes epitomizes what cooking should be: cook your food the way you like it. With that being said, I will present you with my personal rendition so you may tailor it to your tastes.
Penne with Broccoli:
While a pot of water comes to a boil, clean and chop a smallish broccoli crown (I like about 1/3 lb. for myself and this includes one hearty meal, and a portion of leftovers). Put the broccoli in a bowl, cover it with vented plastic wrap, and microwave for about a minute and half (you want the broccoli just shy of al dente* since it will finish cooking later).
When the water is almost to a boil, sauté couple of minced garlic cloves and a generous sprinkle of hot pepper flakes in a two to three tablespoons of olive oil. Zest* a lemon into the hot garlicky oil.
Add the par-cooked broccoli. Season with kosher salt* and freshly ground pepper*. Then add about a quarter of a box of penne to the boiling water (I like to salt to water). You want to give the broccoli about ten minutes in the pan, so time the cooking of your pasta accordingly. With that being said, it is better for the sauce (or broccoli in this case) to wait for the pasta than the other way around, so it is best to wait an extra minute or two before putting the pasta in the water if you’re fuzzy on the timing. However, in the event that this doesn’t work out, and the pasta is ready before the sauce, reserve at least half a cup of the pasta cooking liquid* before draining the pasta to help revive it and bring everything together in the final stages.
While the penne cooks, mash the broccoli with the back of a spoon (I generally cook with a wooden spoon. It makes an excellent broccoli-masher). Really brutalize the broccoli, break it apart, mash it into little pieces. It will adhere better to the penne. If the pan looks bone dry, add a little more olive oil (don't worry, it's good for you). Just before the penne is ready, juice the zested lemon into the pan (I like to juice it through my hand, or even the grater I used to zest the lemon, to catch seeds).
Then add the cooked penne. I like to add the penne directly from the pot to the hot pan of broccoli, using a slotted spoon. This way, you will get a fair amount of the starchy pasta cooking liquid* into the pan, which brings the dish together. If you prefer to drain your pasta in a colander, reserve a little cooking water first. Toss everything together; add salt and pepper to taste, flat leaf parsley if desired (although it is by no means necessary here), and parmesan. Enjoy!
This recipe is not a far cry from any other penne with broccoli you may find online, or in a cookbook, except for one element: the lemon. Personally, I find the lemon to be mandatory. It adds both brightness and depth of flavor. However, if you have a hankering for this, and have all the ingredients, but the lemon, you will enjoy it nonetheless. This pasta dish is enormously satisfying, especially considering it only requires a handful of inexpensive ingredients. The penne makes a major contribution to the satisfaction quotient. The buxom tubes are deceptive to both your eye and your stomach; a small amount seems to be a lot more than it is in reality. Furthermore, broccoli is such a substantial vegetable. As much as I love zucchini or bell peppers, broccoli can stand alone in a way that other vegetables cannot compete with. Plus this dish is ripe with flavor: garlicky, lemony-bright, spicy, and salty. Despite its short list of ingredients, it is tall on flavor.
*See glossary for definitions