A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making a cheery, two-ingredient pasta sauce.
One of the most popular recipes from Six Seasons—Joshua McFadden’s award-winning book on vegetable cookery—is a green sauce for pasta. The recipe was sparked by Ruth Rogers’ River Cafe in London (which was presumably also the muse for Jamie Oliver’s super green spaghetti—Oliver worked there in the ’90s as sous chef).
All of these have the same structure: mostly Tuscan kale (aka lacinato kale, dinosaur kale, or cavolo nero), boiled until tender, then blended with a sting of garlic and stream of olive oil. In Rogers’ version, Parmesan is sprinkled on top; McFadden tosses some with the pasta and throws on more at the end; Oliver adds ricotta.
When Tejal Rao interviewed McFadden about his recipe for The New York Times, she asked if other winter greens were eligible for the same treatment. “I would never make this with anything else,” he replied.
But I would.
The green I had in mind wasn’t technically a green—that is, a leafy thing like spinach or collards or escarole. It was broccoli. What would happen if you hacked one into florets, boiled it in salty water, then blitzed it into oblivion? Would warm pasta welcome it with open arms?
Yes, with some nips and tucks along the way. To make an already little recipe even littler, I ditched the garlic. I also switched up the cheese, from crumbly Parmesan to melty cheddar—just 1/2 cup yields a fondue-like creaminess, so much so that you (gasp) don’t even need the olive oil.
Arguably the most important ingredient is—as it often is with this column (hi minimalist meatloaf, hello chocolatey tahini cups)—water. Of course, you need liquid to turn broccoli puree into broccoli sauce. You could turn on the faucet and that would work just fine. But! Since we’re already boiling broccoli and pasta in water, we’re turning that water into a well-seasoned, broccoli-flavored, pasta-starchy stock. Talk about bang for your buck. This not only thickens the sauce—it bumps up the vegetal flavor, too.
It’s the sort of sauce you should make when you’ve had a tough day or long week or tough day after a long week. When you don’t want to make dinner. When you’re tired or sick or craving something green. When you want to feel taken care of. Call it self-care.
I like to use whole-wheat pasta, which I realize is upsetting to some. But it’s my pantry go-to (have you tried Bionaturae? you should) and I admire its grainy-nutty flavor. If you don’t, of course you can swap in any variety you like.
Just don’t skip the grated cheddar on top. That isn’t up for debate.
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.
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