pasta in pan

We’d been married a few months, living in South Florida about 20 miles north of his parents. We had dinner with them every other week or so. We liked to take them to our favorite hangout, Max’s Grille in Boca Raton.

I usually ordered the same thing: A pasta dish with chicken, broccoli rabe and goat cheese. One evening, I sat in stunned silence as his mother plowed her fork into my meal.

“Oh, that’s good,” she said, taking another bite … then another.

“I don’t like sharing my food!” I whined later to my husband.

“Relax,” he said. “It means you’re part of the family.”

I still don’t like sharing the food off my plate (unless, of course, I offer you a bite). But my mother-in-law’s wandering fork was, indeed, an unconditional welcome to the family. It marked my final transition from Shiksa girlfriend to daughter-in-law.

I’ve thought of my mom-in-law a lot these past days. It’s almost 12 years since she left us, with my father-in-law joining her last fall. We have fun memories of all of us in South Florida: Searching out the tiny house she and her parents rented on Miami Beach; eating Sunday brunch at their golf club; taking their first grandson to hang out at their condo for the day.

scan0001My mother-in-law was a first-generation American who started a Head Start program in Bayonne, NJ, and who sought out and fostered the careers of budding artists. The youngest of five, she cared for her brothers, sons and husband with equal parts tenderness and chutzpah.

She was smart. She was elegant. She was nobody’s fool.

She was also a tremendous cook. She used to look askance as I’d pore over recipes, being careful not to deviate from a single word. She tried to instruct me in her Thanksgiving dressing, her rich brown gravy, and her spaghetti and meatballs — none of which came with written instructions.

“Don’t you know how to cook without a book?” she asked more than once.

I didn’t then, but I’ve learned throughout the years. And last night — thinking of her and her funny “welcome to the family” gesture — I decided to try my hand at recreating the dish she’d eaten off my plate.

I wish she was still here to take a taste.

Pasta With Sausage, Greens & Goat Cheese

pasta platedThis dish is a one-pot wonder that adapts to both your pantry and your dietary needs. Feel like vegetarian? Omit the meat and use a vegetable-based broth. Want a gluten-free option? Use rice pasta. Eating vegan? Omit the meat and cheese.

Max’s Grille used to serve this dish with whole wheat rotini. I used penne pasta, simply because that’s what I had on hand. The restaurant version had chunks of chicken, but I used sweet Italian sausage for its zing. If you’re not a fan of bitter broccoli rabe, substitute regular broccoli or baby spinach.

One last note about quantities: I used a whole pound of pasta for the dish, which easily serves 6-8 people. If you have less people to feed or if you want your dish a bit more saucy, use 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound. You can make the pasta first or as you’re making the sauce … whichever is most time-convenient for you.

  • 1/2-1 pound cooked penne, rigatoni or rotini pasta
  • 1 bunch broccoli rabe
  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage
  • pasta ingredients1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 ounces sliced mushrooms
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 1/2 cup vermouth or dry white wine
  • 3 cups chicken or mushroom broth
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2-3 ounces fresh goat cheese

Slice away the woody part of the rabe’s stems (about 2 inches). Rinse the rabe well.

pasta rabeFill a large saute pan with water and heat it to boiling. Add salt, then the broccoli rabe. Cook for 8 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Wring dry and set aside.

Dry out the saute pan, then glaze it with olive oil. Crumble the Italian sausage in the oil and saute until no pink remains, breaking up the chunks pasta sausagewith a fork or wooden spoon. When the sausage is done, transfer it to a paper towel-lined bowl to drain.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of oil from the pan. Add the onion and saute over medium heat until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and herbs and stir for 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and saute until they release their liquid and begin to turn brown, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the vermouth and stir to deglaze the pan. Add the broth and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer.

While this mixture is simmering, combine 2 tablespoons cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water in a small bowl. Whisk to eliminate any lumps. Pour into the onion/mushroom/broth mixture and increase the heat again so the sauce boils. Stir until it thickens. Add the juice of 1 lemon, then taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary.

Stir in the rabe, the drained sausage and the pasta. Stir until everything is heated through. Add 2 ounces of crumbled goat cheese and stir to incorporate. Dish onto plates, adding more goat cheese if desired.