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Pasta with vegetables and
a little bit of cured pork is one of the backbones of southern Italian cooking. All the way down the boot and off to Sicily and Sardinia, you will find a million hundred, maybe even a thousand, recipes that come down to this basic combination: pasta all’amatriciana in Rome; broccoli rabe with a little sausage meat in the Abruzzi; pork ragu spiked with hot red chiles in Calabria; or in Sardinia, a sauce of crumbled fresh sausage and dried porcini mushrooms.
In the not-too-distant past, meat was a luxury eaten, if at all, only on feast days. The family pig that was slaughtered in January was salted and cured, and all those various bits and pieces, from pancetta (the belly) to guanciale (the jowls) to lardo (fat back) were eked out over the year, adding flavor and richness to otherwise vegetarian food.
So the idea is to take what’s in season—peas or corn or brussels sprouts, tomatoes or leeks, even grated pumpkin or fall squash—and toss it with pasta, adding about 3 to 5 ounces of meat (cured pork, bacon or sausage—I have even been known to dice salami and use it the same way) per half pound.
I use this premise in many ways, sweating out a piece of lardo with finely chopped celery, carrots, and onions as the base for a wintry tomato sauce made with canned San Marzano tomatoes, or adding a tasty bit of bacon to peas for a spring pasta. In the fall, I crisp bits of pancetta in the pan and wilt brussels sprout leaves in the fat with a crushed clove of garlic and a few sprigs of thyme. In the summer, I take the classic ingredients for pasta amatriciana and use bacon and cherry tomatoes to make a “summer” version (in quotation marks because, really, Romans would never countenance this being called amatriciana). In the spring, I might make a purée of cooked greens and toss big fat shells with it, then lay slivers of paper-thin prosciutto or pancetta over the still-hot pasta so that the pork just wilts a little from its residual heat. At Porsena, our most famous dish is a twist on the Abruzzi classic of sausage and broccoli rabe, but we make it with North African spiced lamb sausage and mustard greens.
As you play around with the combinations, you will see how easy it is to use this recipe as a template and to swap one thing out for another. With more delicate, tender vegetables, such as peas or corn, I use more delicate herbs like basil, mint or lovage (a favorite of mine but you probably need to grow it in your herb garden to find it easily); with stronger, bolder flavors, I add more robust herbs such as thyme or sage.
- 1 pound short, stubby artisanal pasta, such as Rustichella d’Abruzzo
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 ounces prosciutto di Parma, cut into 1/4-inch slice then diced finely, fat and meat
- 2 scallions, finely slivered or chopped, including green tops
- 3 cups fresh corn kernels
- 4 ounces pea tendrils, cut into 2-inch lengths, or pea shoots (see headnote)
- 1/4 cup fresh summer savory, basil, or marjoram
- 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Salt, to taste
- Black pepper
What's your favorite pasta + veg combination? Tell us in the comments!