Pasta with Sausage and Shortcut Broccoli Pesto

“Try it. You’ll like it.” These words sound a lot like the famous line in the decades-old Life cereal commercial in which Mikey, clearly a picky eater, was coerced by his brothers to take a bite of the tasty squares.

Instead, these words were the title for a daylong cooking seminar I recently taught to several dozen high school students who participated in an enrichment program that spans multiple school districts. Inspired by the generosity of the folks at Kegel’s Produce, who allowed us to use their commercial kitchen and donated all the fruit and vegetables we needed, I created a veggie-centered theme for the day.

Knowing that vegetables aren’t the food of choice for most teenagers, I decided to address the yuck-factor head on and challenge the students with the vegetables that they might consider…well…the yuckiest of them all.

We made green smoothies with copious amounts of spinach, a jumbo-sized bowl of salad using shredded cabbage instead of lettuce, and sheet pan upon sheet pan of roasted vegetables. (I included cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and the dreaded Brussels sprouts in the roasted veggie mix.)

My aim was most certainly not to starve these hardworking, hungry students—and I certainly didn’t want to see all the generously donated fresh produce in the trash can. On the contrary, I thought long and hard about how I could present foods that many children deem disgusting in a truly delicious way.

That green smoothie I mentioned? I figured one big batch would allow everyone to take a small sample. It was such a hit that we made three more blender-fuls. The bowls of salad and roasted vegetables were scraped clean.

We talked about how a simple dressing and a few choice add-ins will transform a basic salad into something really tasty and discussed how certain cooking methods can create better flavor and texture. Not every student liked every vegetable, but most everyone was surprised by how much he or she did enjoy—and the second helpings, clean plates, and lack of leftovers were solid proof.

As a mom of two teenage boys, I know how hungry most students are by lunchtime. So I knew we also needed a main dish that would anchor the meal and fuel the kids through the remainder of their school day and after-school activities. Feeling compelled to carry through with our theme, I figured we could have some fun with mushy broccoli.

Mushiness may be the biggest turnoff in the world of vegetables, but the following recipe spins that notion on its head (pun intended) in a way that streamlines the cooking process and tastes great. Cooking this nutritious, green crucifer along with the pasta renders the broccoli soft enough to break down and, when combined with a few choice ingredients, coat the pasta like pesto. The addition of sausage supplies flavor and staying power.

As with the other veggie-centered dishes we made, the students cleaned their plates and offered overwhelmingly positive feedback. One girl said that she detests broccoli but loved this meal, and there were many like-minded comments.

Originally adapted from a recipe by Gina Homolka of skinnytaste, I’ve made this meal many times for my family, and it’s always enjoyed. But I realized that I should make it more often after a recent text message from my husband as he awaited departure for a business trip: Still taxiing on the runway. By the way that sausage pasta last night was excellent! Feel free to save any leftovers for when I return.

Pasta with Sausage and Shortcut Broccoli Pesto
Yield: 4-6 servings
Thanks to a somewhat unconventional preparation, a generous helping of broccoli goes almost undetected and a filling meal is ready is about 20 minutes.
Ingredients
  • 12-14 ounces Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 12 ounces uncooked pasta (I like to use small shells or spirals; use a gluten-free option if needed)
  • 6-1/2 cups fresh broccoli florets, no stems (1 pound florets)*
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped**
  • 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
  • Optional: 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (use 1/4 teaspoon for hint of flavor without heat or add more to taste); 1/2 to 3/4 cup halved grape or cherry tomatoes; additional cheese for sprinkling on individual servings 
Directions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Meanwhile heat a large, nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, and brown the sausage, breaking it up as you go. (I like to cook long enough to see some crusty edges.) Remove pan from the heat.

When the water boils, add the pasta and bring the water back to a boil. When the water is boiling again, add the broccoli florets, return to a boil once more, and cook according to the pasta instructions for al dente, stirring occasionally. (Note: this will likely cook the broccoli far longer than you usually cook it. This is good. In order to create the “pesto” it needs to be very soft.)

 When pasta is almost done cooking, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and set aside. Drain the pasta and broccoli in a colander, and let it sit for the time being.

Return the empty pasta pot to the stove, add the olive oil, and heat it over medium heat. Add the garlic and optional red pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic is aromatic but not browned, about 30-60 seconds. Reduce the heat to low, and add the pasta and broccoli back to the pot along with the cooked sausage.

Toss to combine, sprinkle the grated cheese and salt and pepper to taste over top (I use a slightly rounded 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper). Mix well and gently mash any large pieces of broccoli. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water and mix again, adding more cooking water if needed.

Serve in pasta bowls, sprinkle with optional tomatoes, and pass additional grated cheese at the table, if desired. 

Notes

*As another method of measuring, this amount of broccoli fills my quart-size Pyrex measure with the florets in a slightly rounded heap over the rim.

** This amount of garlic produces a balanced but noticeable garlic flavor. Those who prefer a subtler flavor may wish to use 2 cloves.

 

The Fountain Avenue Kitchen https://fountainavenuekitchen.com/

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

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