At age 12, Laura Vitale moved from Italy to the U.S. and although she’s found a home away from home in South Jersey, she stays connected to her roots through food. “I didn’t realize how much [cooking] fed my soul until I moved away and I missed it,” she recalls.

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She was so homesick that she’d cry over the phone to her Nonna, who eventually got fed up with the complaints and she suggested Vitale try cooking their family recipes for herself. So that’s exactly what she did. “Just the smell of those dishes cooking made me feel better,” she says. “It instantly made me feel connected.”

Vitale’s love of food spurred her to start her YouTube series “Laura in the Kitchen” in 2010. Since then, she’s acquired millions of viewers and now stars on Cooking Channel’s “Simply Laura.” Season 2 premieres Saturday, March 5 at 10:30 a.m.

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She may not be a trained chef, but her philosophy is relatable. “I like to cook because of how it makes me feel,” she explains. “I don’t cook to impress. I cook to feed my soul. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop.”

What to expect this season
The first season of “Simply Laura” was more of an introduction, bringing her cooking style from YouTube to TV. As for Season 2, Vitale says, “This season we pulled out all the stops. It’s still so much heart. You’re going to get to see so many of my friends and family.”

In the season premiere, Vitale cooks up a restaurant-style meal for a date night in with her husband. The recipes include N.Y. strip steaks, green beans with herbed butter, crispy ribollita and amaretto tiramisu.

“I want to reach those people who are perhaps feeling like they’re stuck in a rut when it comes to getting that passion to get back in the kitchen,” she explains. “If I can do it, anybody can do it. When you watch that show, you’ll instantly feel like you’re part of my family.”

Dream dinner party
If she could invite any three people — living or dead — over for a dinner party, she chose an eclectic group, including her Nonna, who she dubs her “toughest critic.”

Next, she’d select Johnny Cash, since she’s a big fan and feels like she was born in the wrong era. Last but not least, she would pick British Cook Nigella Lawson because they have similar food philosophies.

Make it your own
“My biggest tip to anyone when it comes to cooking is to not be afraid to put your own spin on it,” Vitale says. “I want people to feel liberated, not like they’re bound to a recipe or that it won’t taste right if they don’t do it exactly as written.”

She shares her broccoli rabe, sausage, and pesto pasta recipe with us, saying, “You will go crazy over this pasta dish because it’s insanely easy… My mouth salivates just thinking about it.” You can even swap in kale or spinach, if you prefer; the options are endless. “Add different veggies, different herbs, and before you know it, you put a stamp on a brand-new recipe and you’ll make it completely your own.”

Broccoli Rabe, Sausage and Pesto Pasta
Recipe courtesy of Laura Vitale

Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes (includes chilling time)

Ingredients:
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 bunches broccoli rabe, tough stems and leaves discarded
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh parsley
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for garnish
1 pound penne pasta
12 ounces Italian sausage, casings removed
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (made from a couple slices of stale bread)

Directions:

1. Prepare a bowl of ice water. Fill a large pot with water, add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Add the broccoli rabe and cook until crisp-tender and deep green, 3 to 4 minutes. Plunge it into the ice bath and leave it to cool completely, about 5 minutes. Save the hot broccoli rabe water for cooking the pasta later.

2. Remove the broccoli rabe from the ice water and drain well on a kitchen towel-lined plate. Add the broccoli rabe to a food processor, along with the parsley, pine nuts, lemon juice, garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Cover with the lid and start to puree the mixture while slowly drizzling in 1/2 cup of the olive oil.

3. Transfer the pesto to a bowl and stir in the Parmesan. Cover with plastic wrap and pop it in the fridge for 1 hour.

4. Bring the salted broccoli rabe water back to a boil, add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions.

5. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 12-inch pan over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until brown, 6 to 7 minutes.

6. While the pasta cooks, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in an 8-inch saute pan over medium heat until hot. Add the fresh breadcrumbs and cook until golden brown and crispy, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

7. When the pasta is cooked, reserve about 3/4 cup of the starchy pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot.

8. Add 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the sausage and let it come to a quick boil over medium heat, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon. Add the sausage to the pasta, along with the pesto and a touch of the starchy water to loosen it. Toss well to make sure the pasta is well coated and place it on a serving platter. Scatter the golden crispy breadcrumbs all over the top. Garnish with more toasted pine nuts and Parmesan as desired.