Every time I come back to Italy, which I do as often as I can, I learn something new. Take pasta, for instance.
The subject is very much on my mind these days because I’ve just published, with my daughter Sara (chef-owner of Porsena Restaurant in New York), a book called “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” in which we present recipes for pasta around the year. A few of the recipes are for handmade pastas, but most are for the kind of pasta we’re familiar with in Italy — so-called pasta secca or pasta asciutta, the boxed pasta that Italians eat happily and eagerly every day of the year.
The best pasta is made from durum wheat
Pasta is truly a marvelous food product — healthy, tasty, easy to prepare, loved by almost everyone, young or old, gourmet chef or harried home cook, and to my mind the single greatest contribution Italy has made to the modern table. It comes in a dozen or more different brands and hundreds of shapes and sizes, but its greatest virtue is that, if it’s made in Italy, it’s made from hard durum wheat, one of the most protein-rich of all grains. A cup of cooked pasta contains more than 8 grams of protein and, depending on the sauce that accompanies it, is low on the glycemic index, with a good amount of fiber and more than 15 different vitamins and minerals, some of them, admittedly, in small quantities.
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Pasta can be made fresh or it can be dried — but whatever the form, it is cooked by boiling or steaming over water, i.e., it’s not baked and it’s not fried. Theoretically, it can be made with almost any flour, but wheat flour is far and away the most typical. That’s because when wheat flour and water are mixed together, gluten develops, and it’s gluten that gives elasticity and extensibility, two characteristics fundamental for both bread and pasta.
But what about that gluten? I have friends who swear that a gluten-free diet has led them to lose weight, gain friends, improve their digestion and their disposition, and generally make life better — I have enough friends who swear this to want to pay some attention myself. But (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) I have failed to find any hard evidence for the claim that gluten is responsible for their former woes. (I’m not speaking of those with celiac disease, a well-recognized condition that can be deadly if not identified and managed — but only about 1 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with celiac disease.)
Some have suggested that so-called gluten intolerance has nothing to do with gluten itself but is instead related to modern wheat and the way it is grown. Others have speculated that it has something to do with modern bread — which would omit pasta from the list of suspects.
In any case, I’m not here to argue with you. If you feel you can’t tolerate gluten, all I can say is too bad for you because you are missing out on one of life’s greatest and easiest pleasures — a steaming bowl of pasta topped with a sauce that might be as complex as a meaty Bolognese ragu or as simple as aglio-oglio-peperoncino (garlic, extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of red chili peppers). I call it the little black dress of the food world, to be dressed up or dressed down, as often as you wish.
A fresh take on pasta for Thanksgiving
My latest discovery in the ever-unfolding world of pasta is a dish our friend chef Salvatore Denaro calls amatrigialla. No, not amatriciana, the quick-and-easy Roman trattoria dish that we know and love — and included in our book. But faced with a crowd of hungry olive pickers, for whom amatriciana is an ideal lunch, and equally faced with an inexplicable dearth of tomatoes in the farmhouse pantry, Salvatore said, why not squash, which was available in abundance. So we peeled and seeded the available squash, which came in several varieties, and chunked it up so it would cook quickly in the big black-iron skillet, and amatrigialla (gialla, or yellow, from the bright colors of the squash) was born.
Might I add that this would be a terrific take on traditional squash for a Thanksgiving table? Use any good squash available (butternut, delicata, Hubbard) or pumpkins made for eating, not for Halloween (cheese pumpkins, rouge vif and the like). Long, hollow bucatini are traditional for Roman amatriciana, but you could use any robust pasta shape, including spaghettoni, penne rigati or rigatoni.
Here’s how to do it:
Prep time: About 15 minutes
Cook time: About 15 minutes
Total time: About 20 minutes, with some cooking done during the prep
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 medium yellow onion, finely sliced
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced small
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small dried red chili pepper, crumbled (or a pinch of crushed red chili flakes)
3 to 4 cups squash or pumpkin cubes, about 1 inch to a side
One sprig fresh rosemary, leaves only
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta, preferably imported artisanal
Freshly grated aged pecorino cheese for serving
1. Combine the garlic, onion and pancetta with the oil in a skillet and set over medium heat. Cook gently, stirring occasionally. When the meat just begins to brown along the edges and render its fat, add the chili and stir in, then add the squash cubes and the rosemary leaves.
2. Stir to mix well and add a very little boiling water — a tablespoon or two, just enough to keep the squash from sticking to the pan. As the squash cooks down it will soften and release some liquid, but if necessary, be prepared to add a little more boiling water from time to time until the squash is softened. This should take about 20 minutes. When done, remove from the heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Meanwhile, bring about 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add salt and the pasta, stirring it in well. As soon as the water comes back to the boil, start timing the pasta, following the directions on the package but testing at least 2 minutes before the prescribed time.
4. As soon as the pasta is al dente, drain it and turn immediately into a warm serving bowl. Pour the sauce over it and serve, turning the pasta and sauce together at the table and passing the grated pecorino.
Main image: Delicata squash pair nicely with pasta for a Thanksgiving dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins