broccoli confit pasta with breadcrumbs

Well hello. I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving with lots and lots of delicious side dishes. We can all agree that while the turkey always fronts like she’s the belle of the ball, the sides are the real Thanksgiving MVPs, right? That’s our stance on it at least. One year we even had an entire Thanksgiving meal of just sides, and it might have been our best yet. This year we skipped the whole thing in favor of a weeklong trip to Havana, Cuba.

How’s that for breaking tradition? Let me tell you what – It. Was. NUTS! Absolutely worthwhile, and also nuts. The old cars, the crumbling building facades, the lack of boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Not only did the experience stretch my brain and soul in that particular way that only travel does, but visiting as an American tourist (legally, mind you) during the 58th year of a total commercial and economic embargo had the effect of tugging on an entirely different set of heartstrings. Tugged is an understatement; ripped is more accurate. And because real life is always stranger than fiction, Fidel Castro passed away on our last day in the country. I’m still marinating on the totality of it all. After a week back at home the only takeaway that has solidified itself in my swirling thoughts is that the Cuban people are some of the chillest and friendliest people I’ve ever met.

So. Now that you’re up to speed on why I was MIA for one of the *most* crucial food bloggity holidays of the year, let’s talk about this pasta which, while it has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, has everything to do with someone I’m grateful for. The idea for this dish came about from my attempts to create something of a fancy pasta that doesn’t require the use cheese for my friend Emmie. If you don’t know Emmie, she is the kind and patient soul who taught me how to cook for myself over fifteen years ago by guiding me step-by-step through making chicken fingers and fries from scratch during a high school sleepover.

Having cooked with her mom and grandma since she was a wee little thing, her homecooking prowess currently ranks somewhere between flames emoji and Ina Garten on the greatness spectrum. Texting her is still my preferred method for figuring out any and all kitchen mysteries, Google is second. So naturally when she told me that she was starting to observe a mainly vegan diet (+soy free, but fishies are okay) to investigate a potential food allergy situation, I started scheming. At some point I got fixated on pasta because it seemed like the trickiest category to tackle, and she had mentioned missing it badly. And, okay, maybe I wanted to impress her a little too.

It took me a few tries and a couple of outright flops, but with a mashup of Roy Finamore’s broccoli cooked forever and this deliciously funky pasta from the NY Times I finally hit the nail on the head. These noodles check all the boxes that any respectable pasta would – creamy, umami-filled sauce, with salty and piquant elements – but contain no cheese, no meat (unless you count fish as meat), and no soy. To make it vegan try subbing capers for the anchovies, or leave them out entirely and add a little more salt and maybe another clove or two of garlic. It’s really the transformation of the broccoli during the low, slow simmer that makes the flavor here. That and the breadcrumbs, clearly, because #TeamCrunchyTopping always and forever. Of course add cheese if you wish to and can. This pasta is for everyone (especially you, Em)!

Broccoli Confit Pasta with Breadcrumbs, sauce adapted barely from here and bread crumb inspiration from here
Serves 4 as a main

Cooking notes: This makes more broccoli confit than what you will need for the pasta sauce, but it is so delicious on it's own that my vote is to make the entire amount and eat the rest as a side. You can also use it as a base for soup, pureed along with 2 or so cups of stock and finished with a squeeze of lemon juice. It's incredibly versatile and the possibilities are endless. Both the broccoli confit and the breadcrumbs can be made well in advance and stored in airtight containers in the fridge and on the counter, respectively. 

Broccoli Confit
2 bunches (about 2 lbs) broccoli
1/2 cup olive oil
3 (or more) garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 generous pinch of red pepper flakes
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
kosher salt
black pepper

Bread Crumbs (aka "pangrattato") 
1 cup panko bread crumbs
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (up to 1/4 cup, depending on how dry your crumbs are)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
a few sprigs worth of thyme, stems removed (optional, but tasty)
zest of one lemon
kosher salt
a pinch of red pepper flakes, and/or black pepper

To Serve
1 lb spaghetti noodles
chopped parsley
lemon juice
red pepper flakes

Prepare the broccoli confit. Fill a large skillet with sides at least two inches tall with water and bring it to a boil. While waiting for the water to boil, cut the florets off the broccoli. Then peel the stems and chop them into thick chunks. 

Once the water is boiling, add the broccoli and blanch it broccoli for five minutes. Drain the broccoli in a colander. Wipe the skillet dry and return it to the stove. 

Put olive oil and garlic in the skillet over medium heat. When the garlic starts to sizzle, add the anchovies and pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook until the anchovies have melted into the olive oil, stirring them around a bit. Add the broccoli, season with salt and pepper, and stir well. Cover the skillet, turn the heat to very low, and cook for two hours. Use a spatula to turn the broccoli over in the skillet a few times, but try not to break it up if you plan to eat it aside from the pasta sauce. If you're planning to use the entire amount for the sauce, break it up as much as you like. It will be very tender when done. 

If you're making the broccoli confit ahead of time, transfer to a bowl for storage and let cool. Cover and store in the fridge. If you're making it all in one go, begin the steps below during the last half hour of the broccoli cooking time. 

Prepare the breadcrumbs. Warm olive oil in a medium skillet. Add garlic, thyme, and red pepper flakes, and cook until the garlic is fragrant and barely golden, about 2 minutes. Add crumbs, stirring well and cook until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Season liberally with salt and red and/or black pepper. Remove skillet from stove and allow to cool for 1 minute, then add the lemon zest and do a final check for seasoning. Set aside until you're ready to eat. 

Assemble the pasta. Cook pasta to al dente in generously salted water according to package instructions. Reserve a cupful of pasta water before draining. (You probably won't need it, but do it just in case.) Using a blender or food processor, puree about half of the broccoli confit to your desired consistency. We liked ours mainly smooth with some small chunks. The amount of the broccoli you use will depend on how thick you want your sauce to be. Place a large skillet (the one you used to cook the broccoli works) on the stove over low heat, and add the broccoli puree and the pasta. Toss toss toss until all of the pasta is coated, using a splash of pasta water to thin if you find it necessary (we didn't). Portion the pasta into individual serving bowls and top each with a quarter of the breadcrumbs. Stir the breadcrumbs in just before eating so that each bite contains a little creaminess and a little crunch. Garnish with parsley and a light squeeze of lemon juice.