My mother always prepared our red sauce pasta the same way.
She cooked the pasta in a big pot of boiling salted water, tested every minute or so to make sure it wasn’t cooked beyond al dente, and then dumped it into a large bowl when done.
The sauce came next, poured over the pasta like hot lava, followed by freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese. Meatballs and pork were served in separate dishes. There was always fresh Italian bread from the Italian bakery on S. 19th Street in Harrisburg and a green salad served at the end of the meal.
To this day, I think there is nothing better than this.
But as I add more pasta dishes to “Rosemary’s Cucina,” I have been incorporating more recipes that call for all the sauce ingredients to be cooked and tossed together in a deep sauté pan with the cooked pasta added at the end. This restaurant technique results in pasta that has totally absorbed the sauce and glistens beautifully on the plate.
I recently celebrated spring by making a pasta classic from Emilia Romagna, located in northern Italy. It’s called “paglia e fieno,” or “straw and hay.” It is so called because the dish traditionally is prepared with a mix of yellow egg pasta and green spinach pasta. I used fresh fettucine purchased from a newly discovered vendor at my farmers market. But you can use dried pasta, as well, either fettucine or tagliatelle—wider noodles that work so well with the creamy sauce.
As discussed many times in this column, so many classic Italian dishes have multiple versions and variations. I used a very simple recipe from cookbook author and restauranteur Lidia Bastianich. It is a luscious combination of fresh pasta (just briefly cooked), baby peas, prosciutto and sweet heavy cream. It drew rave reviews from hubby despite the peas! I would serve it to company, too.
Paglia e Fieno
- 4 scallions
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup shelled fresh peas or frozen baby peas
- 6 to 8 slices good prosciutto, cut into ½ inch ribbons
- 2/3 cup chicken stock or canned low sodium chicken broth
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1 pound fresh fettucine, a mix of yellow egg and spinach or a half pound each of dried egg and spinach fettucine
- ¼ cup or more to taste of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
- Trim the roots and tips from the scallions. Cut them in half length-wise, then crosswise into 3-inch strips.
- Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat.
- Add the scallions and cook until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Scatter in the peas and cook until just tender (if you are using frozen peas, this will only take less than a minute). Add the prosciutto and toss for 1 or 2 minutes.
- Pour in the chicken stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Then reduce the sauce to a simmer and cook until it is reduced by half.
- Add the heavy cream and continue to simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, another 2 minutes.
- Cook the pasta in the boiling salted water. If you’re using fresh pasta, it only needs 3 minutes from the time you toss it in the pot. If using dried pasta, follow the instructions for cooking it “al dente.” Save a little of the pasta cooking water in a measuring cup if needed to thin the sauce.
- Drain the pasta when cooked, but leave some cooking water clinging to the strands. Work quickly!
- Add the pasta to the simmering sauce and cook a few minutes more to further reduce the sauce. Only add the reserved pasta water if the sauce becomes too thick.
- Serve in warm bowls and sprinkle with lots of grated cheese.
You can tinker with this recipe a little bit.
- Sauté some sliced button mushrooms along with scallions.
- Use chopped pancetta instead of prosciutto.
- Use ricotta, thinned with some pasta water instead of cream.
- Add a little grated lemon zest.
- Substitute chopped sweet onion for the scallions.
My pasta adventures continue. A few nights ago, I cooked some bucatini pasta with my regular red sauce and chopped Italian sweet sausage in my deep sauté pan, adding a little pasta water and lots of grated cheese. It was delicious.
It’s early June. There is still time for a pasta dinner before your grill takes center stage.