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Orecchiette - little ears of flavour

The pasta of Puglia is orecchiette which in Italian means little ears. It's made and eaten right across the region in kitchens and restaurants. In the streets of Bari, women sit outside their houses every day in the curly old town making these at lightning speed on small wooden tables in the sunshine.

You can buy packets from shops but to get the real taste and effect look for the artisan pasta from Puglia.

Pasta in this part of Italy is made with flour and water, nothing else. The flour should be semola, a hard wheat flour (not semolina) or in the Salento, the south of the peninsular, this pasta is also made with barley flour and even burnt wheat flour, which is the ultimate in cucina povera coming from the times when farm workers picked up the few remaining grains after the last of the crop was harvested and set on fire.

Hand made orecchiette is the best but it's tricky and you need to watch and be guided by an expert. (preferably one of those ladies in Bari, or Gianna Greco from Cooking Experience in Lecce)

The pasta needs to keep its little ear shape when it is cooked. Many version we buy in Australia turn into small flat shells after they are boiled, which do not carry the sauce or vegetable juices. I have also seen packets of orecchiette that are made with flour and egg. They may be shaped like little ears but they are not orecchiette.

In the north of Puglia, orecchiete is almost always served with green vegetables. The traditional dish is cooked with Cima di Rapa which is a bitter green vegetable sometimes called turnip tops. It is also cooked with rocket and broccoli but the recipe suits all types of tasty and bitter greens. The basic idea is to boil the pasta and the greens together so the pasta takes on some of the vegetable flavour and then drain and add plenty of olive oil which has been heated with garlic and perhaps an anchovy. Simple and delicious.

(A little chilli oil drizzled on top is nice)

In Bari, the orecchiette is made with semola flour in normal, large and tiny sizes. (orrecchiette, orecchetone and orcchiettini) Here, many years ago we ate a delicious broccoli dish which we now cook as a regular family favourite. It's a bit more fancy than the basic pasta and greens.

Orecchiette con Broccoli

A head of broccoli

Orecchiette (about 100g per person)

100 g pancetta cut into small pieces

1 small chopped tomato.

6 table spoons olive oil

a clove of garlic - crushed but still whole


grated pecarino cheese

Break the broccoli into small heads and put them into a large pan of salted water. Bring the water to the boil then add the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, pour the olive oil into a fry pan and add the crushed garlic and pancetta. Cook for a few minutes until slightly crispy then add the chopped tomato and gently fry all the ingredients until the tomato separates in the oil.

When the pasta is cooked, drain the pasta and vegetables, leaving a small amount of cooking juices. Toss in the heated oily sauce and stir.

Serve with grated pecarino.

In the Salento, it is common to have orecchiette with tomato sauce either cooked or raw. At the height or summer when tomatoes are at their best, the basil is blooming and the evenings are warm, there is nothing like a plate of orecchiette con pomodoro crudo with a cold glass of white wine. This is made by cutting up fresh sweet tomatoes, tearing up a pile of basil and then adding extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. The sauce sits and infuses while you boil the pasta and then you stir the cold sauce into the warm pasta and top it with grated ricotta salata or percarino. It looks pretty if you use a mixture of different coloured tomatoes.

In Lecce, there is a famous Orecchiette dish served with tomato sugo and little meatballs. No where else in Italy have I seen pasta and meatballs arrive on the same plate. Generally, even in the north of Puglia, meatballs are cooked in the pasta sauce but taken out and eaten separately with salad as a second course.

The meat balls in this dish are smaller, about the size of a marble. The sauce can be as simple as you like, made either with pasatta or a fresh tomatoes. The meatballs are the same recipe as normal ( which I will write about very soon) made with minced veal or beef and pork, breadcrumbs, egg, cheese and parsley. Make the little meatballs and brown them them in olive oil in a fry pan.

Cook the passata with a olive oil, salt and a crushed whole garlic cove until it starts to separate. Then add the meatballs and cook them together for about 30 minutes.

Put the orecchiette in a big pan of boiling salted water. When cooked drain the pasta and put in a serving dish. Pour over the sauce and stir it in gently so the meatballs stay intact. Sprinkle with ricotta salata, pecorino or another hard grating cheese. Mangia!!

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