Pasta Gratin with Swiss Chard, Fontina, and Nutmeg


reginette gratin in plate

Our good friend Bill Bateman just came back from Val d’Aosta, where he goes every winter to ski and enjoy the food and scenery, and we were once again the lucky recipients of some fabulous Fontina cheese he bought while there. What an amazing cheese! It melts incredibly well, and the aroma is subtle, milky, nutty, grassy. Of course I wanted to incorporate the Fontina in as many dishes as I could while it was still fresh from Italy, so here is one recent creation, based on a recipe I found in Gourmet Magazine a few years ago and doctored to my taste.

I used homemade egg pasta cut into curly pappardelle for this dish; but you can certainly use store-bought, as long as the pasta is fresh and thin. And while I made this dish to showcase Bill’s Fontina, you can use Raclette or Gruyere instead, as these are often easier to find.

For ideas of how to use your Swiss chard stems (do not throw them out–they are delicious and nutritious!), see our post on chard stems.

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer

  • 1 large bunch Swiss chard, preferably rainbow, ribs removed and reserved for another use (see note above), leaves coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ pound fresh egg pasta (ideally Pappardelle or tagliatelle)
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing the pan
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced (1 and ½ cups)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup whole or 2% milk
  • 2 ounces Mascarpone (preferably imported Italian)
  • 2 ounces Fontina from Val d’Aosta, rind removed, grated
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

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Preheat the oven to 350° (preferably set on convection).

Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add the coarsely chopped chard leaves and 2 tablespoons of the salt, and cook 5 minutes, or until soft; remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl of cool water and keep the water boiling. Drain the chard, cool under running water, and squeeze out as much water as possible with your hands. Chop finely and set aside.

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Add the fresh pasta to the pot of boiling water and cook, until al dente, about 2 minutes; drain and toss with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil and set aside.

Meanwhile, place the remaining teaspoon of olive oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet. Add the onion and garlic, and sauté over medium heat until golden and lightly caramelized, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the chard and sauté another 5 minutes, or until the chard is warmed through and wilted. Season with ½ teaspoon of the salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper. Set aside.

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Brush an oven-to-table roasting pan with olive oil; I find an 8-inch square or 9-inch x 4-inch pan works well.

Place the drained pasta and chard mixture in the pan and mix with your hands or tongs.

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In a bowl, beat the eggs with the milk and Mascarpone; add the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of pepper. The mixture will be lumpy, which is fine; the lumps will dissolve once the pasta is placed in the hot oven. Stir the egg mixture into the pasta and chard.

Scatter the Fontina on top of the pasta, and sprinkle with the Parmigiano.

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Bake in the preheated oven 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top. You can slip the pasta under the broiler for 5 minutes for extra crunch on top. Serve hot.

Roasted Cabbage Bundles Stuffed with Pork and Ricotta

Unlike most stuffed cabbage dishes, these bundles are not at all heavy or rich; they are quite light, thanks to the addition of fresh Ricotta to the stuffing. I’ve never been a big fan of stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce, so I cook these bundles with a splash of homemade chicken or beef broth and plenty of sliced onions for sweetness.

Roasting the bundles covered for the majority of the cooking time keeps them nice and moist; uncovering them and raising the oven temperature in the last few minutes gives them a glorious browned top and crunchy exterior that contrasts nicely with the tender inner layers.

Serve 3 bundles per person as a main course, or just one per person as a palate-teaser at the start of a meal. The bundles can be assembled a day before roasting; pour on the broth just before slipping them into the oven.

Serves 2 as a main course, 6 as an appetizer

  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 large Savoy cabbage leaves (preferably outer leaves)
  • ¼ pound fresh whole-milk Ricotta
  • ¼ pound lean ground pork shoulder
  • ¼ cup (1 ounce) freshly grated Pecorino Romano
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ¼ cup minced Italian parsley
  • ½ teaspoon ground fennel seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon chili flakes
  • ½ cup chicken or beef broth

cabbage-roll-ingredients

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (preferably set on convection). Brush a 9-inch round pyrex baking dish with the olive oil. Place the onion in the dish. Season with ¼ teaspoon of the salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper; toss well and set aside.

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add the cabbage leaves; cook 3 minutes, or until the cabbage leaves are tender and pliable. Rinse under cool water and drain well, then gently blot dry.

cabbage boil

In a bowl, stir together the Ricotta, pork, Pecorino, garlic, parsley, fennel seeds, chili, ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon of pepper.

Arrange the cabbage leaves in a single layer on a large sheet of parchment paper on the counter. Place one-sixth of the pork mixture on the lower part of each cabbage leaf. Wrap each leaf around the filling, first bringing up the bottom, then folding over each of the two sides.

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Roll each into a neat bundle. Place seam side down in the dish on top of the onions. Pour in the broth and season the top with the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt.

Cover with aluminum foil or parchment paper and roast in the preheated oven 30 minutes. Uncover, raise the oven temperature to 425 (preferably set on convection), and roast until golden brown and crisped on top, about 5 more minutes. Serve hot, spooning the pan juices and onions over the cabbage bundles.

Mom’s Roasted Fennel with Parmigiano

I grew up eating my mom’s roasted fennel and loving it; but when I tried to make it on my own, after I moved out of my parents’ home, I just couldn’t get it to taste anywhere near as good as my mom’s. The trick: boiling the fennel before roasting it. If you skip the boiling step, the fennel will come out stringy and fibrous rather than sweet and caramelized.

I always make more than I need of this just so I can enjoy leftovers; you can chop up any extra  fennel and warm it again as a sauce for pasta, or throw it on slices of focaccia topped with Mozzarella or Fontina and bake until the bread is crispy; or stir into beaten eggs with a splash of cream for a heavenly frittata.

Serves 4

  • 3 fennel bulbs
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup (28 grams or 1 ounce) freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Preheat the oven to 325°F (preferably set on convection ).

Rinse the fennel bulbs and cut the tops off each; reserve the feathery fronds to garnish salads or soups, and the stalks for stocks or as a base for roasting fish or lamb. Cut off about 1/4 inch at the bottom of each bulb. Quarter each fennel and cut out the fibrous triangular core from each quarter. Slice each quarter thickly.

fennelcore.

fennelsliceRinse the sliced fennel under running water to eliminate any remaining grit from between the layers.

fennelrinse

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Drop in the fennel and add 1 tablespoon of the salt; cover and cook over medium heat  for 5 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Drain, rinse under cool water, and drain again.

Place on 2 large baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Drizzle with the olive oil, and season with the remaining teaspoon of salt and the pepper. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the Parmigiano and then spread out on the baking sheets so the fennel is in a single layer if possible. Sprinkle the top with the  remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmigiano.

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Roast in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until golden brown on top and lightly crisp around the edges, stirring once in a while to promote even browning. Adjust the seasoning if needed. Serve hot.

Scallion Ravioli with Rosemary-Scented Lamb Ragu

The inspiration for this dish is an Afghani specialty called Aushak:  thin pasta dough filled with spiced leeks, topped with a quick lamb sauce and dollops of minted yogurt. I wanted to reinterpret the flavors and play with them in an Italian way. The result: brightly flavored, light ravioli sauced with a robust, herbed lamb ragu enriched with a spoonful of Mascarpone. Quite the dish for company! The ravioli can be shaped up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated, covered with a clean kitchen towel, or they can be frozen for up to 1 month; if you freeze the ravioli, do not defrost them before dropping them into the boiling water, but allow 1 extra minute for cooking. The ragu can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated;  warm it through before serving, while you boil the ravioli.

Serves 4 to 6

For the dough:

  • 1 and ½ cups (200 grams or 7 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for the counter and trays
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs

For the filling:

  • 1 pound (6 large bunches) scallions, washed thoroughly, trimmed, and very thinly sliced (white and green parts)
  • ¼ teaspoon chili flakes
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the lamb ragu:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, minced (1 cup)
  • 1 and ½ pounds ground lamb shoulder
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced rosemary
  • ½ cup dry red wine
  • 1 and ½ cups chopped canned Italian plum tomatoes (San Marzano are best)
  • 1 cup cool water, plus extra as needed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the Mascarpone sauce:

  • ½ pound Mascarpone (preferably imported Italian)
  • 2 tablespoons whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon minced rosemary
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

To cook the ravioli:

2 tablespoons salt

Make the dough: Mix the flour and salt on a counter and shape into a mound. Make a well in the center and add the eggs to the well. Using your fingertips, work the flour into the eggs, then gather into a dough and knead by hand; add a little water if the dough is too dry or a little flour if it is too moist. Knead for 10 minutes, or until smooth, then shape into a ball, wrap in plastic, and let rest 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and adjust the salt to taste if needed. Set aside.

Assemble the ravioli: Cut the dough into 2 pieces. Working with 1 sheet at a time and keeping the other covered, roll out into a thin sheet using a pasta machine; the sheet should be nearly transparent after rolling. Be sure to lightly dust the sheet of pasta with flour every time you roll them through the pasta machine or it may stick or tear.

Cut the sheet into 2-inch squares. Make sure the squares are on a lightly floured counter, or they will stick while you assemble the ravioli. Spoon a heaping teaspoon of filling on each square. Using your fingertip, rub a bit of cool water around the filling. Pick up each square and fold into a neat triangle, sealing the edges well. Place on a lightly floured parchment paper-lined tray. Continue with the remaining dough and filling. If you like, knead any dough trimmings with a touch of water to soften a bit and roll out again if you need additional dough for any leftover filling.

Refrigerate the ravioli until needed, covered with a clean, dry towel.

making scallion ravioliMake the ragu: Place the olive oil and onion in a 3-quart saucepan. Set over medium-low heat and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes, or until the onion is very soft and aromatic. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the lamb. Cook until browned nicely all over, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Drain off any fat if the lamb seems fatty. Stir in the garlic and rosemary, and cook 2 more minutes, or until aromatic. Add the wine and cook until it evaporates, about 3 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan to dislodge any bits that have stuck and caramelized. Add the tomatoes, water, bay leaf, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Cover the pan, making sure the bay leaf is fully submerged in liquid to better extract its aroma, and lower the heat to medium-low. Cook for 1 hour; the tomatoes should break down and the sauce should take on a deep brick color. Adjust the seasoning and keep warm; add a bit of water during cooking if needed to maintain a happy level of moisture in the pan. (The sauce can be made up to this point 3 days in advance; refrigerate until needed, then warm gently before proceeding.)

Make the Mascarpone sauce: Combine all the ingredients in a bowl; adjust the seasoning and set aside.

When you are ready to serve, cook the ravioli: Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add the salt and the ravioli. Cook until the ravioli are al dente, about 4 minutes, making sure the water does not boil too rapidly or the ravioli may fall apart. Drain gently, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water to thin out the ragu if needed.

Spoon half of the ragu onto a platter. Top with the ravioli. Spoon on the remaining ragu. Top with dollops of Mascarpone sauce and serve hot.

Spaghetti with Squid, Sweet Peas, and Fresh Chives

Along the Adriatic Sea, Friulian cooks combine fresh offerings from the water with unusual fresh herbs and spices; parsley is commonplace across Italy as a partner to fish and seafood, but in Friuli, fresh chives are favorites as well. The result is particularly beguiling when peas are added. When it comes to squid, you can either flash-cook it (1 minute or less) or stew it low and slow. Either will result in tender squid, but anything in between is likely

to yield rubbery squid. Here the chosen method is low and slow.  Don’t be

alarmed at the large quantity of squid called for in the recipe below: once they hit the pan, the squid lose so much moisture that they shrink considerably.

Ingredient notes: In Grado and other towns along the coast, cooks use cuttlefish for this recipe as often as squid; feel free to use cuttlefish if you find some at your local fish market. But remember: the smaller the squid (or cuttlefish), the sweeter the taste and the more tender the flesh.

Squid and sweet pea sauce with chives

Serves 4

For the sauce:

  • 1 pound ripe plum tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley
  • 2 pounds cleaned squid, tentacles chopped if large, tubes cut into thin rings (weight after cleaning; about 4 pounds prior to cleaning)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 and ½ teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Cool water as needed
  • ½ pound (2 cups) frozen petite peas, thawed

For the pasta and to serve:

  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons snipped chives

Make the sauce: Make a cross-hatch on the bottom of each tomato and cut out the stem end on each tomato. Bring 1 quart of water to a boil and drop in the tomatoes; cook until the skins begin to loosen, about 30 seconds for ripe tomatoes and 2 minutes for firmer tomatoes. Drain and cool. Slip off the skins. Cut in half along the width (the Equator) and scoop out the seeds. Dice finely and set aside.  (I actually like the seeds so I do not remove them, but most classic Italian recipes call for seeding the tomatoes; this is your call. Seeds contain a lot of flavor as well as vitamins.)

Warm the olive oil with the garlic and parsley over a medium flame in a deep, wide saucepan large enough to accommodate the pasta later. When the garlic is just fragrant, but before it takes on any color, add the squid. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the wine and cook until the wine nearly evaporates, about 2 minutes, then stir in the tomatoes, season with the salt and pepper, and cover. Cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes, adding water as needed to maintain about ½ cup of liquid in the pan at all times. Stir in the peas and, if needed, some water to keep the sauce nice and moist. Cover again and cook 5 minutes. Adjust the seasoning and keep warm.

Make the pasta: Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add the salt and the pasta. Cook until al dente, then drain, reserving 2 cups of the pasta cooking water.

Transfer the drained pasta to the saucepan and sauté 1 minute over high heat to meld the flavors. Add some of the reserved pasta cooking water as needed to thin out the sauce; it should coat the pasta nicely. Stir in the olive oil. Adjust the seasoning and serve hot, sprinkled with the chives.

Micol Negrin

Bucatini with Fresh Sardines, Saffron, and Wild Fennel

There are countless variations on this pasta: some call for a bit of tomato to be added instead of saffron; others suggest warming the pasta in the oven after layering it with the sauce; still others call for a dusting of toasted bread crumbs flavored with anchovies. The recipe below includes saffron, pine nuts, wild fennel, and raisins, and the flavor balance is just slightly sweet. This is a sauce that requires a bit of time and patience, but it is one of the pinnacles of Sicilian cuisine and deserves every bit of its fame.

Ingredient notes: Wild fennel can be very hard to find; in Sicily it grows wild, but you may have to substitute the tops and fronds of fennel bulbs. I like to add a bit of ground fennel seeds along with the fennel fronds to better mimic the wild fennel flavor.

Fresh Sardine and Wild Fennel Sauce (Sicily)

 Serves 4

For the sauce:

  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • 1 and ½ pounds fresh sardines
  • 1 and ¼  teaspoons salt
  • 10 ounces wild fennel, or tops and feathery fronds from fennel bulbs, minced
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 large yellow onion, very thinly sliced
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground or crushed fennel seeds
  • 2 salted anchovies, boned, gutted, and rinsed, or 4 oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained
  • ½ teaspoon saffron pistils
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:

  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 pound bucatini

Make the sauce: Soak the raisins in cool water to cover for 15 minutes; drain and blot dry.

Rinse the sardines. Remove the heads, open them like a book, and remove the innards and bones. Rinse again and blot dry. If possible, try to keep the two filets attached. Select half of the sardines and set aside; these should be the best-looking ones, as they will be fried whole and placed atop the dish when serving.

Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add the wild fennel and cook 2 minutes, or until soft. Drain, reserving the wild fennel cooking water to cook the pasta later.

In a deep saucepan large enough to accommodate both the sardines and the pasta later, heat ¼ cup of olive oil until shimmering over medium-high heat. Dredge the  sardines you set aside in the flour, shaking off the excess, and fry until they are golden on both sides and cooked through, about 3 minutes total. Blot dry on paper towels.  Season with ¼ teaspoon of the salt and set aside.  Clean the saucepan and dry it.

Place the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the clean saucepan. Add the onion and ground fennel seeds, and sauté over a medium flame until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the less perfect sardines and cook, stirring and breaking them up with a spoon, about 3 minutes. Add the anchovies and cook until they melt into the sauce, about 2 minutes. Stir in the drained and boiled wild fennel, the saffron, drained raisins, and pine nuts, and season with the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and the pepper. Cover and cook 2 minutes; adjust the seasoning and keep warm on a very low heat.

Make the pasta: Return the wild fennel cooking water to a boil. Add the salt and the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving 2 cups of the cooking water.

Stir the pasta into the sauce and sauté 1 minute to meld the flavors. Adjust the seasoning as needed and dilute if necessary with some of the reserved cooking water. Serve hot, topped with the fried sardines.

Micol Negrin