Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: Rethink your mac and cheese with this sunny ricotta and saffron pasta from Abruzzo.
Simple, fresh, and tasty, this is a pasta dressing that barely even requires cooking -- just a little sizzle of the guanciale and the tea-like infusion of saffron threads, some fresh ricotta cheese, and before you know it, dinner is being tossed together and served.
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Saffron is the special ingredient here, adding a fragrant and spiced note to this dish, not to mention color. It's a little extravagant for something so simple, but perhaps that's what makes this dish so appealing -- a little like a grating of fresh truffles over a fried egg. Humble paired with exquisite: it means little effort, big results.
Abruzzo's Aquila is famous for its saffron, which has been grown in the area since it was brought over from Spain in the Middle Ages. It now has DOP (protected designation of origin) status, and it's featured in many of the area's dishes, particularly in pasta or with potatoes (such as in their wonderful potato and saffron soup).
This light and refreshing pasta dish is traditionally made with a short, ribbed tube pasta known as cannarozzetti (penne, ditalini, or mezze maniche are similar and could make good substitutes). The hot pasta is tossed quickly with some fresh ricotta, saffron (the threads are steeped in a little hot water to make a golden, fragrant infusion), and guanciale, cut into small cubes and cooked until golden. Vegetarians could leave this out, but those who love it will see it adds a wonderfully salty touch to an otherwise very delicate dish. Serve it with plenty of grated Pecorino cheese and perhaps a twist of black pepper.
11 ounces (320 grams) short, ribbed tube pasta such as penne, ditalini, or mezze maniche A pinch of saffron threads, infused in a few tablespoons of hot water 2 tablespoons olive oil 3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) guanciale (or pancetta or fresh bacon if unavailable) 11 ounces (320 grams) firm, fresh ricotta (sheep's milk is preferable) Salt and pepper to taste A handful of Pecorino cheese (or Parmesan or Grana padano)