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The rise of gluten-free alternatives to classic wheat products, as well as the inexorable march of the healthy eating movement, mean that there are today several excellent pasta substitutes, in which ground rice, sweetcorn and other starches, grains or vegetables replace the durum wheat. One of the most interesting and valuable from a nutritional point of view is lentil pasta, available in many health food stores and speciality food outlets. Lentils are a terrific source of B-complex vitamins, folate, manganese, iron, protein and fiber.
Broccoli is a vitamin-rich vegetable (it has plenty of Vitamin K, which helps to keep bones heathy and strong) that is also full of iron, potassium, calcium and other important minerals. Not only is it good for heart health, but it can help reduce the risk of certain cancers by neutralizing airborne toxins thanks to a phytochemical called sulforaphane. Finally, its high fiber content makes it an excellent low-calorie way to curb hunger and reduce appetite.
Working with health coach Valentina Dolci, our chef Gennaro Russo has combined these two superfoods in a calorie-light dish that has proven to be a big hit during Le Sirenuse’s twice-yearly Dolce Vitality fitness and health retreat.
First, choose your broccoli. You should look for varieties with small heads and side shoots on a long stem (sometimes called broccolini) rather than those with a single, huge floret on a short, thick stem. There are several small-floret varieties in Italy, but perhaps the best known are broccoli baresi, so called because they are grown around the city of Bari in Puglia. These are used in that classic pugliese pasta dish, orecchiette con i broccoli, on which the present recipe is a lighter, less calorific twist. The addition of a few walnuts also means that it has a good balance of carbs, vitamins and protein, making it a perfect one-dish meal.
Note that as the recipe only calls for the upper florets of the broccoli, you will need to buy or gather as much as two kilos (4lb or more) to give you 400 grammes (14 ounces) of small florets. The rest can be used to make vegetable stock.
100g (3.5 oz) yellow lentil pasta
400g (14 oz) broccoli
30g (1 oz) walnuts
4 tbs extra virgin olive oil
Two sprigs of thyme
Cut some small evenly-sized broccoli florets from around the top of the stems until you have 400g (14 oz) in weight. Divide into two even piles.
Throw the first into a pan of boiling salted water for around three minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon or colander and cool down in ice-cold water before draining.
Now toss the other pile of broccoli florets into the boiling water and leave for six minutes. Remove, shake the water off and put them in a blender with the olive oil and walnuts and blitz until you have a smooth green velouté sauce. Pass this through a fine-meshed chinois strainer and keep aside.
Now time the next three steps to finish together: 1) cook the pasta in boiling water (this should take around six minutes but check on the packet for the recommended cooking time, bearing in mind that lentil pasta goes from al dente to over-soft a lot more quickly than regular pasta); 2) toss the par-boiled broccoli you set aside in a pan with a spiral of olive oil and the thyme; 3) heat up the broccoli sauce or velouté in a large pan.
When the pasta is ready, drain, add to the pan with the broccoli sauce and amalgamate, then toss in the pan-seared broccoli florets, stir, and serve.
Photo © Roberto Salomone