By my rough calculations, my kids are 1/8 Italian. My grandmother on my mom’s side immigrated from Italy, and that means that my kids are guaranteed to eat at least 1/8 of any pasta dish I put in front of them, even if it has kale in it!
This Sausage and Kale Orecchiette is a great beginner pasta dish. It has just a few ingredients, with the pasta water itself playing a star role. (Yes!) It also comes together quickly and will make you feel like a cooking rockstar even on a tired Wednesday.
Suggestions and Substitutions for This Skillet Pasta
- Orecchiette: I like this pasta shape for this dish. The “little ears” cook quickly and do a good job of holding onto the light sauce, but feel free to substitute farfalle, penne, or even orzo!
- Sausage: I recommend using an Italian sausage, either sweet or hot, for this recipe. (I prefer sweet if I’m feeding it to my kids and hot if I’m not.) You can use bulk sausage or sausage in the casing. If you buy the sausage in the casing, remove it before cooking the sausage.
- Greens: I really love kale in this dish (I like Tuscan), but Swiss chard would be a perfectly delicious substitute or even baby spinach in a pinch. If you can find a big bunch of kale, though, use it.
Use the Pasta Water – It's Key!
The key to making this dish work is to season the pasta water well with salt and then use some of that water at the end when you are tossing all the ingredients together. (I like to use about a tablespoon of kosher salt per quart of water.)
Pasta water is basically starchy water, so when you add it to a hot skillet with other ingredients, it'll cling to those ingredients and form a light sauce over everything. If you leave this step out, you will notice it in the final dish. Dry pasta is the worst.
Storing and Reheating Leftover Pasta
This pasta dish keeps really well for 5-6 days in an airtight container in the fridge. Reheat it either on the stovetop or in the microwave. Either way, add a splash of water to it to bring it back to life while it reheats.
The Dad Add: Crispy Parmesan Breadcrumbs!
This is one of my go-to pasta toppers. Mix breadcrumbs and parmesan together in a small bowl, then add them to a skillet with some butter to form little crispy bits. So delicious!
The key to this dish, especially if you have younger, finicky eaters, is to give them small portions of the pasta and, most annoyingly, separate the ingredients.
Yes, I painstakingly separated the pasta, sausage, and kale in this dish and piled each on a plate for my kids. But you know what? THEY ATE IT. They even tried the kale. Sometimes a little extra work goes a long way!
More Quick and Easy Weeknight Pasta Dishes
- Caprese Pasta Salad
- Pasta with Tuna and Capers in White Wine Sauce
- Pasta with Spinach, Artichokes, and Ricotta
- Spaghetti Pasta Carbonara
- Pepperoni Pizza Penne Pasta
Orecchiette Pasta with Sausage and Kale
- 12 ounces orecchiette pasta
- 14-16 ounces bulk Italian sausage
- 1 large bunch purple or Tuscan kale, de-stemmed and leaves chopped
- 1 large shallot, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1/2 cup salted pasta water
- 1 lemon, juice only
- Salt, to taste
- For the Crispy Parmesan Breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
Make the crispy parmesan breadcrumbs:
Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. In a small bowl, toss together breadcrumbs, parmesan, and red pepper flakes to avoid any huge parmesan clumps. Pour into skillet and stir to coat with butter. Cook for 3-4 minutes, tossing occasionally, until browned. Set aside until ready to eat.
Cook the pasta in salted water:
Fill a large pot with water and set it over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon of kosher salt (or 2 teaspoons table salt) per quart of water. The water should taste seasoned, but not seawater-salty. It’s important to get the salt level right in the water because we will be using it to finish the dish.
When the water is boiling, add the pasta and stir it rapidly to separate the pasta, since orecchiette has a tendency to stick together. Cook until al dente, probably 9-11 minutes. Scoop out a cup of the pasta water (don't forget!), then drain and rinse the pasta to stop the cooking.
Cook the sausage:
While the pasta cooks, add the Italian sausage in small chunks to a large skillet over medium heat. Cook, letting the sausage render out fat, for 6-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sausage is cooked through.
At this point, there should be enough fat from the sausage in the skillet, but if your skillet is very dry, add a drizzle of olive oil before the next ingredients go in.
Add kale, shallot, and garlic:
Add the chopped kale, shallot, and garlic to the skillet. Stir to combine and cook for 2-3 minutes until kale is wilted.
Add cooked orecchiette and pasta water:
Add the cooked orecchiette, 1/2 cup pasta water, and lemon juice to the skillet. Toss to combine and heat until the pasta water thickens to form a light sauce. If the pasta seems dry, add more pasta water.
Serve pasta in shallow bowls garnished with crispy breadcrumb topper.
Store leftovers in the fridge for 5-6 days. Reheat in the microwave with a splash of water or over the stove in a skillet on medium-high heat.