Substitutions don’t always work.
Years ago, when I was just learning French, I was in Paris and my carpal tunnel syndrome was acting up. I needed to get a wrist splint to help alleviate the pain. An online search for the French word for “splint” was fruitless, so I decided I would just describe it. I walked into the first pharmacy and approached the pharmacist. In my halting French, I started to speak.
“Hello. I need something – I don’t know the word in French – something to fix my wrist in place.”
The pharmacist looked at me funny. I continued, undaunted.
“You see, my wrist is inflamed and it hurts, so I need something to restrict it.”
I could see a smile starting to take place on the pharmacist’s lips. Actually, no, that wasn’t a smile. It was a suppressed laugh!
“There is an inflammation in my wrist,” I went on, “and I need this thing you use to stop it from moving.”
I could tell that the pharmacist could barely contain herself. I started to mimic a splint, encircling my wrist with the other hand, showing her how it works.
“Oh! No monsieur,” she immediately replied, looking relieved. “We don’t have any. I’m sorry.”
I walked out of the pharmacy confused. Why was she so close to breaking out in laughter? Was my French so bad? On a hunch, I pulled out my phone and did a couple of searchers on my online French-English dictionary. I immediately started laughing out loud.
The French word for wrist is poignet. Unfortunately, in my explanation to the pharmacist, I had substituted it with the word poitrine, a word that means bosom or breasts. I had just asked her for something to fix my breasts in place because they were inflamed.
Like I said, substitutions don’t always work.
The recipe below, however, can take just about any substitution. No broccoli rabe? Use regular broccoli (like I did here), or brussel sprouts, or squash, or any other vegetable you have. Just adjust its cooking time, or use it precooked in the case of squash. No mozzarella? Use any left over cheese in your refrigerator. The sausage used can be made from just about anything, beef, pork, chicken, or replaced with mushrooms if you’re a vegetarian.
Baked Pasta with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage – Slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen
1 pound chunky pasta of your choice (such as penne or orecchiette)
1 bundle broccoli rabe, stems and leaves cut into 1-inch segments (or about 3-4 cups of chopped up broccoli)
1 pound Italian sausage (or your favorite uncooked sausage), casings removed
2/3 cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
6 ounces mozzarella, cut into small cubes
2 cups whole milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon table salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
Few gratings fresh nutmeg
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add pasta and five minutes before its cooking time is up, add the broccoli rabe (for regular broccoli, add it 3 minutes before it’s done). Drain the broccoli rabe and pasta together and place in a large bowl.
Meanwhile, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, wide saucepan (you will use this for the bechamel in a few minutes; you could also use your pasta pot, once it is drained) over medium heat. When hot, add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until it starts to brown, about five minutes. Remove with slotted spoon or spatula, leaving any fat behind. Eyeball the drippings and use one tablespoon less butter next if it looks like there’s more than a tablespoon there. Any less, don’t worry about adjusting the butter.
Heat oven to 400º F.
Melt your butter in same saucepan that you cooked the sausage in over medium heat. Once melted, add your flour and stir it into the butter until smooth. Cook the mixture together for a minute, stirring constantly. Pour in a small drizzle of your milk, whisking constantly into the butter-flour mixture until smooth. Continue to drizzle a very small amount at a time, whisking constantly. Once you’ve added a little over half of your milk, you’ll find that you have more of a thick sauce or batter, and you can start adding the milk in larger splashes, being sure to keep mixing. Once all of the milk is added, add the salt, garlic, nutmeg, and few grinds of black pepper, and bring the mixture to a lower simmer and cook it, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
Add the sausage and bechamel to the bowl with the pasta and broccoli rabe. Stir in mozzarella and half of grated parmesan or pecorino until combined. Pour into a lasagna pan, deep 9×13-inch baking dish or 3-quart casserole dish and coat with remaining parmesan or pecorino. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the edges and craggy points are nicely bronzed.