Orecchiette are a distinctive Puglian type of pasta shaped roughly like small ears, hence the name (orecchio, ear, orecchiette, little ears). They're about 3/4 of an inch across, slightly domed, and their centers are thinner than their rims, a characteristic that gives them an interestingly variable texture, soft in the middle and somewhat more chewy outside. In discussing them in La Cucina Pugliese Luigi Sada says, "making them takes experience, ability and practice," an observation that leads to the conclusion that you may want to buy them ready made. This is a much easier proposition than it was even ten years ago -- Italians living in other parts of the Peninsula are discovering the Southern Italian cuisines and as a result there is a market for southern specialties; the major industrial pasta producers such as Barilla or Voiello have joined the small artisan shops in making them. As a result they are readily available throughout Italy, and I have seen them in the United States as well. When you buy them, check the expiration fate to be sure they're still fresh, because I've heard that overly old orecchiette can be problematic to cook.
If you instead choose to make them at home, Mr. Sada says you should begin by weighing out two parts durum wheat semolina and one part flour (to get the proportions right you really will need to use a scale; I would suggest 1/4 pound (100 g) flour -- a cup -- and 1/2 pound (200 g) semolina, which will be less than 2 cups in volume). Mix warm water into the flour until you obtain a firm dough, which you will want to knead quite well; I would suggest 10-15 minutes. Roll the dough out into finger-thick snakes. Using a knife, cut a round the size of a thumbnail and spread it out across the work surface with the knife (the cutting and spreading should be one motion), then flip the pasta with a flick of the thumb; doing so will make the center of the bit of pasta form up into a dome, and the oreccietta is done. Continue making orecchiette until you have finished with the dough.
Mr. Sada also notes that there are large and small-sized orecchiette, and says that if you do not roll the ball of your thumb over the spread pasta, but rather leave it flat, you will have a strascinato, which will be interchangeable with an orecchietta. If you instead just cut the piece of pasta from the snake without spreading it out you will have a megneuìccje, which would (I think) be better suited to soup, along the lines of the Sardinian fregula. In any case, let the orecchiette rest for several hours before you cook them, in abundant lightly salted water.
How to season them? There are lots of alternatives, all of which will also work well with butterflies (farfalle) if you choose not to make the pasta from scratch and cannot find orecchiette in a store near your home.
Here are some suggestions:
- Orecchiette col Ragù -- A meat sauce for orecchiette, with an interesting creamy ricotta variation, and scarafiuni, a Puglian stuffed pasta that goes especially well with ragu.
- I Rechhietédde Ch'u Suche
Orecchiette with a tasty, slow-cooking meat sauce from Altamura.
- Orecchiette e Broccoli Rapa con Alice Salata -- Broccoli rabe and salted fish are an inspired combination.
- Orecchiette e Broccoli di Cavolo con Lardo Soffritto -- A very traditional pasta sauce, with lard to provide a counterpoint to the broccoli.
- Orecchiette coi Broccoletti -- One of my favorite uses for broccoli, which go very well with salted ricotta.
- Orecchiette con i Funghi -- An interesting baked pasta dish with porcini or other wild mushrooms.
- Orecchiette alle Olive -- Orecchiette with a tasty tomato and olive sauce.
- Orecchiette cone Cime di Rapa -- Orecchiette with broccoli rabe, a classic, zesty, and very easy combination.
Got more sites / recipes to suggest? Let me know!