About 15 years ago or thereabouts, I read and was utterly entranced by Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, and a less well-known book, The Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Mate. I dreamt then (and still do) of learning Italian and travelling to Tuscany. For many years I would borrow an audio copy of Under the Tuscan Sun from the library each January, and listen to it in my car, driving through our snowy, cold Ontario winters in a warm bubble of Tuscan sunshine. No surprise then, that that’s the time in my life when I decided to apply myself to learning Italian cooking.
I found an excellent guide in a cookbook called Rustic Italian Cooking by a Canadian writer named Kathleen Sloan. She shared her passion and respect for Italian food in a way that was (and still is) inspiring and accessible. I thought that if she, as an Anglo-Irish Canadian, could cook in the Italian tradition, then so could I even though my European ancestry is 100 percent Belgian.
I think it’s fair to say that over the years I’ve developed a certain level of skill for Italian cooking, and have learned to bring Italian flair to a wide variety of dishes. My repertoire of Italian dishes may be limited, but my appreciation for Italian cooking is boundless.
This brings us to last night’s family dinner. We invited the offspring over to celebrate Jenn and Matthew’s first anniversary, and I wanted to make a dish that I learned during the period when I really discovered Italian cooking, one that all three of my kids really enjoyed.
It’s called Pizzoccheri (I love to say that with what I imagine an authentic Italian accent to be), and it’s a heavenly combination of pasta, potatoes, cabbage and gooey, nutty Fontina cheese, with a generous amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano for good measure. Seasoned with garlic and sage steeped in butter, this is a wonderfully rich and comforting dish. You may have noticed that my cooking is usually on the lighter side, but sometimes only cheesy goodness will do.
Pizzoccheri is a buckwheat pasta. I’ve never been able to find it so I use fettuccine, which the recipe suggests as a substitution. This makes me wonder what the modified dish would be called in Italian (I don’t suppose I can really call it Pizzoccheri if it doesn’t contain any, right?). I’m hoping my new go-to expert in Italian cooking, Chicago John at his excellent blog From The Bartolini Kitchens can help me out with that.
Update: In April 2012, Chicago John posted about making pizzoccheri from scratch. The photos are stunning, as the buckwheat pasta is very dark, quite different from the fettuccine that I used. Please visit his post here and check out the rest of his blog while you’re there!
Nomenclature aside, I urge you to try this recipe. Everyone who tastes it will thank you! There were five adults around the table (plus my 18-month-old granddaughter who said ‘mmm’ every time she had a biteful), and there was barely enough left for me to take a helping to my son who was working last night (such a nice Mum I am). Buon appetito!
Pizzoccheri (Pasta with Potatoes, Cabbage & Cheese)
From Rustic Italian Cooking by Kathleen Sloan
Pre-heat oven to 450°
Butter or rub with olive oil a large casserole dish. The one I used is about 9x12x3 inches in size.
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 3 potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
- 8 oz Savoy cabbage, halved, cored and cut into strips about 1/2″ wide (I always seem to use more, generally about a pound)
- 1 lb pizzoccheri (buckwheat fettuccine) or regular fettuccine
- 3 tbsp butter
- 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 12 sage leaves, torn into pieces
- pinch salt and pepper
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 10 oz Italian fontina or Taleggio cheese, diced (I use Fontina)
This is a one-pot meal that is then assembled in a casserole dish for finishing in the oven. Not only delicious, but easy for clean-up!
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the coarse salt and potatoes. Reduce heat to medium-high and cook for 3 minutes until potatoes are softened (not cooked through). Stir in the cabbage and pasta. Increase the heat to high, and cook (uncovered too prevent boiling over) for about 8 minutes, or until the pasta is not quite tender, but firm (somewhat shy of al dente). Drain, but reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid (it will be quite starchy, from both the potatoes and the pasta). Return the pasta and vegetables to the pot.
While the pasta and vegetables are cooking, melt the butter with the garlic and sage, adding the pinch of salt and pepper. The garlic should get soft, but not browned, and the butter will be infused with garlicky and sagey goodness.
Pour the butter mixture over the vegetables, along with all but 2 or 3 tablespoons of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Toss it all together gently until incorporated.
Place half the mixture in the prepared casserole dish, scatter half the diced Fontina over top and a grinding of pepper. Repeat, and then top with the rest of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pour 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the reserved cooking liquid over top to moisten slightly.
Bake in the top half of the oven for 7 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. Let stand for five minutes before serving.
- if you are using a casserole dish that’s smaller in dimensions but deeper, you can do three layers of pasta/potatoes/cabbage and cheese instead of two;
- I made mine a bit ahead of time to make things easier for welcoming company. I covered the assembled dish with foil and placed in the refrigerator for about 45 minutes. I put it, still covered, into a 400° oven for about 30 to 45 minutes to warm through, then uncovered it and turned the oven up to 450° to finish, for about 10 minutes. I also used the convection feature to assist in browning the top a bit.
Served with a salad of romaine lettuce and carrot shavings simply dressed with oil and vinegar, plus slices of crusty whole wheat baguette, this made a rich and satisfying meal that even the
pickiest most selective eater at the table (Miss What’s-That-Green-Stuff?) enjoyed.