If you've been following me through this column and its recipes for more than five minutes, you know that Italy, its people and its many lovely cuisines occupy a large part of my heart. And over the last week or so, my whole heart has been aching.
In the early hours of Aug. 24, the mountainous zones of the regions of Lazio, Marche, and Umbria in central Italy were hit by a major earthquake of 6.2 magnitude, followed by a series of aftershocks that were still rattling the region as late as Sept 2.
Among the remote little towns and villages that were hardest hit were Amatrice and Norcia, the birthplaces of some of Italy's most celebrated dishes of pasta. Amatrice was especially devastated, sadly just as it was preparing what would have been the 50th festival commemorating one of the most famed of those dishes, Bucatini all'Amatriciana.
As Italian cookbook author Fred Plotkin has reminded us, the soul of Italy, as well as its sustenance and comfort, has always been pasta. He went on to offer a lovely idea for raising relief funds by suggesting that restaurants in our country offer a donation to the Italian Red Cross for every order of a pasta dish for which the decimated towns within the region are celebrated.
In the days that followed, some took him up on the idea and have gone even further, offering fundraiser dinners that feature foods from the area beyond their famed pastas.
If you're not able to participate in any of that, you can of course make donations directly to the Italian Red Cross. You can also show support for the pasta companies which are helping with the relief efforts by purchasing their products.
And you can connect with the soul of the region by sharing the lovely pasta dishes for which they are known. It may not seem like much, but when we share food, it does much more than fill our stomachs; it connects us with the soul of a culture in a way that nothing else can accomplish.
And, in so doing, we also keep the soul and spirit of a culinary legacy alive.
How you Can Help
Relief organizations report that they have all the material things that they need, but there is never enough money to cover relief efforts. You can make donations directly to the Italian Red Cross (Croce Rossa Italiana), a member of the International Red Cross/Europe.
Cause: "Terremoto Centro Italia"
Website (Croce Rossa Italiana): www.cri.it/home
(Bucatini in the style of Amatrice)
There are probably as many recipes for this as there are citizens of Amatrice. This is Marcella Hazan's version. Some cooks deglaze the pan with a little white wine before putting in the tomatoes: allow 1/2 cup if you want to try it, though I agree with Marcella that it makes the sauce too acidic. Many cooks today use olive oil, but the original fat was actually lard, and I find that Marcella's blend of butter and oil comes closer to the delicacy of that fat.
A few notes: In Amatrice, only the local Pecorino cheese is used in this. It's milder and much more delicate than Pecorino Romano, the type most widely available to us. Marcella therefore used a blend of Parmigiano and Pecorino. Also, Amatriciani insist that this can only be made with their own guanciale (cured pork cheek or snout), a product that's likewise more delicate than pancetta (which, like our bacon, comes from the belly). Unhappily, guanciale of any kind is hard to come by, so while pancetta isn't ideal, for most of us, it will have to do.
Finally, Fred Plotkin, who has spent time in Amatrice (while I have not), recommends cutting the onion amount called for here by half and adds the cheese in three stages: he first stirs a couple of spoonfuls to the sauce, then tosses the pasta with a few spoonfuls more before it's added to the sauce, and finally, he adds the last bit when the pasta and sauce are brought together. I find that it does make a difference.
Bucatini is a fat spaghetti with a hollow center. If you can't find it, use regular spaghetti.
1 Â¼ inch-thick slice (about 4 ounces) guanciale or pancetta
2 tablespoons mild olive oil or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups canned imported whole Italian plum tomatoes, drained and cut up (1 28-ounce can)
Chopped hot chili pepper or hot pepper flakes, to taste
1 pound bucatini (or spaghetti)
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano, plus more for serving
1. Cut guanciale or pancetta into strips about 1 inch long. Put oil, butter, and onion in heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Saute until onion is pale gold, then add guanciale or pancetta. Cook for about 1 minute, until it loses raw red color, stirring a couple of times.
2. Add tomatoes, chili pepper, and bring to boil, and adjust heat to slow, steady simmer. Simmer gently 25 minutes, taste and adjust salt and hot pepper, and turn off heat.
3. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in 6- to 8-quart pot. When sauce is almost done, stir small handful of salt and bucatini into boiling water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, using package directions as rough guide and starting to check 1 minute before suggested time has lapsed. When almost done, if necessary reheat sauce over medium low heat, and when pasta is ready, drain and immediately toss it with sauce. Add two cheeses, toss, and serve immediately, passing more pecorino separately.
Pasta alla Norcia
There are two distinctly different pasta dishes that carry the name "in the style of Norcia," one is a sauce made with the town's renowned pork sausage, the other with its most luxurious local food products (indeed one of the most luxurious and precious of all Italian foodstuffs), the black truffle.
Spaghetti alla Norcina
(Spaghetti with Black Truffles, Norcia Style)
This is taken from my favorite of Marcella Hazan's cookbooks, her second one, "More Classic Italian Cooking" (1978), where it was called "Spaghetti alla Nursina." You can also find it in "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (1992). Hazan wrote that this dish should be reserved just for lovers, saying that "Some pleasures are too keen to be shared with a crowd. And, in this case, too expensive."
Indeed. Black truffles are very hard to come by and are extravagantly expensive when you can find them. You may not find them locally, but there are a number of mail-order services on line. They're most often available preserved, but occasionally fresh black truffles can be had in season. The best preserved truffles are in sold in glass jars.
2 Â½ to 3 ounces black truffles
3 tablespoons fruity extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 anchovy fillet, chopped very fine
6 ounces (about 1/3 of a 1 pound package) spaghettini (thin spaghetti)
1. If using fresh truffles, clean with stiff brush, rinse briefly, and pat dry. If using preserved truffles, drain, reserving liquid for another use, and pat dry.
2. Grate truffles using smallest holes of box grater. Put into small earthenware or enameled iron saucepan. Stir in oil, gradually trickling it in a little at a time. Add garlic and anchovy and put over low heat. Cook, stirring with wooden spoon and mashing anchovy, until it is almost dissolved to paste. Don't mash garlic (it should remain whole). Keep heat low and don't let oil bubble and if it gets too hot, remove from heat briefly. Taste for salt and remove from heat.
3. Bring 3-4 quarts water to boil and add small handful salt. Stir in spaghettini and cook until al dente, using package directions as rough guide and beginning to check 1 minute before recommended time has elapsed. While pasta cooks, warm serving bowl with hot water, drain, and pat dry. When pasta is done, drain quickly and transfer to warmed bowl. Remove garlic from sauce and add to pasta. Toss thoroughly and serve immediately.
Pasta alla Norcina II
(Pasta with Sausage and Cream, Norcia Style)
The more usual pasta Norcia style is penne or another tubular pasta tossed with a simple sauce made with Norcia's justly famous mild, sweet sausage and cream. You can make a plausible version using mild Italian sausage. Some modern renditions of this contain mushrooms or black truffle, but the original is not believed to have contained either one, and I find that they just get in the way (not to mention add to the expense).
1/2 pound mild (sweet) Italian sausage
1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil (not extra virgin) or 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and 1 tablespoon mild olive or vegetable oil
Whole black pepper in a mill
1 small clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 pound penne or another tubular pasta
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus 1/2 cup, for serving
1. Remove casings from sausage and roughly crumble. Put onion and olive oil or butter and oil in heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Saute until golden about 3-4 minutes, then add crumbled sausage and brown, crumbling it more with fork or spatula as it cooks. Add garlic and black pepper to taste and toss until fragrant, about 1/2-minute.
2. Pour in wine, raise heat, and bring to boil. Adjust heat to lively simmer and cook until wine is evaporated, about 5-10 minutes. Add cream and bring to boil. Cook until lightly reduced and thickened, about 3-4 minutes more. Taste and adjust salt and pepper and turn off heat.
3. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in 6- to 8-quart pot. When sauce is almost ready, stir in small handful salt and pasta into boiling water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, using package directions as rough guide and beginning to test 1 minute before recommended time has lapsed. If needed, reheat sauce over medium low heat when pasta is almost ready. Drain pasta and toss with sauce, Parmigiano, and 2 tablespoons Pecorino. Serve at once with more Pecorino passed separately.
Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
(Spaghetti with Pecorino Cheese and Black Pepper)
This exquisitely simple pasta has only four ingredients - five if you choose to add butter or oil, and the only cooking involved is the boiling of the spaghetti. Yet, like spaghetti with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, its culinary cousin from farther north, few things can equal it for pure satisfaction. This version owes much to Fred Plotkin, who taught me about blending the cheese and pepper with some of the spaghetti's cooking water before the noodles are added to it.
The amount of pepper given here is fairly mild: Some recipes call for as much as a quarter of a cup. Add (or hold back on it) to suit your own taste.
1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil (optional)
1 tablespoon (or to taste) coarse, freshly ground black pepper
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in 6- to 8-quart pot. Add small handful salt and stir in spaghetti. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, using package directions as rough guide and beginning to test 1 minute before recommended time has lapsed. While pasta cooks, warm serving bowl with hot water, drain and dry well.
2. When pasta is almost ready, take up about 1/2-2/3 cup cooking liquid, and put 1/3 cup into warmed bowl. Add butter or oil if liked and sprinkle with pepper and half of cheese. Whisk until cheese is melted and creamy. When pasta is done, drain and quickly add to pan and toss. Add remaining cheese, and toss until melted, adding a few more spoonfuls of cooking water as needed. Serve immediately.