Greg’s long-lost pasta dish.
Penne with Broccoli, Shallots, and Emmenthaler
When I was in Italy I had a tremendous dish, a penne with broccoli sauce. The sauce had no cream, jus an intense broccoli flavor, a little olive oil, and, I assume, some butter. The trick is how to get the intense flavor in the sauce. Merely cooking broccoli in olive oil and butter doesn’t do it. I tried. Most likely some garlic was sautéed in the sauce, but it wasn’t the dominant flavor. I can put all these ingredients together, but something is always lacking.
Interesting. A few questions: Where were you served this dish? In what region of the country? Do you remember the restaurant? Most important, was the broccoli puréed or left in little pieces? Depending on what region this is from, other thing could have been present. For instance, it’s common in Campania to sneak a little anchovy into broccoli dishes, or in other regions maybe pancetta, or a little Parmigiano. In Basilicata a bit of hot chili would often be present.
Any other thoughts about the taste? Do you remember any herbs floating around in the sauce? If you can answer these questions for me, then I’ll get busy and recreate the recipe for you. Then I’ll post it, along with your letter, and you can let me know how it compares to your original.
Well, Erica . . .
. . . Of course you ask all the right questions, and I’ll do my best to answer. First, the sauce was not a purée but one that appeared to be no more than olive oil, butter, and small pieces of broccoli. But I know it was more than this, because I tried this exact combo at home, and it didn’t have much flavor. Let me say that if you can improve on this by puréeing the broccoli (which I did at home in a second version of the dish, and it was much more flavorful) or by some other method, please do so. As for where, actually I had the dish just over the border in Lugano, Switzerland, at a restaurant called the Grotto. As you most likely know, Lugano is very Italian. There was no pancetta or any meat in the dish, no visible herbs, no chili, and no anchovy smell or taste. It was really one of those marvels that one has at a restaurant where everything seems so basic and simple but has phenomenal flavor. I did notice a recipe for this dish in a cookbook on Roman recipes-it’s one of those newer paperbacks that focus on certain regions of Italy-but it didn’t seem like it would reproduce what I had.
So thank you very much for your interest and expertise. Please let me know via e-mail when you post this recipe.
Lugano, Switzerland, an Italian-speaking city in the Ticino region near the Italian border, is a region known for its cow’s milk cheeses and excellent butter, so I couldn’t help feeling that Greg’s loved and lost pasta might have contained some cheese and probably a little butter too. Formagella, formaggini, and büscion cheeses are the famous ones from the Lugano area, and they would be my first choice to include here, but even in haughty old Manhattan I couldn’t find any of the Ticino cheeses, so I chose a cave-aged Emmenthaler, a Swiss cow’s milk cheese that I’ve always loved. It melts a little like Fontina Val d’Aosta but has a nuttier flavor. I added very little cheese, so little you couldn’t notice its presence by just looking at the pasta (which may have been the case with Greg’s dish), but it rounded out the flavors, softening the broccoli and making everything seem creamy without the addition of any cream. I actually tested this pasta with the Emmenthaler and then with Fontina; both were very good, but the Emmenthaler won out by a pinch.
I also felt that the key to getting great flavor from broccoli was to cut it small, making sure to include some of the tender stem, where much of the broccoli flavor lies, and to sauté the penne in the skillet with the broccoli sauce, so everything gets infused with flavor. Something else I try to do when I want to get big flavor from a pasta dish is choose a great artisanal brand of dried pasta, such as Latini. These delicately made pastas are much more porous than mass-produced, big-company ones, so they absorb more flavor from the sauce (Latini is available through Gustiamo.com and at DiPalo’s wonderful cheese shop in New York’s Little Italy, if you’re in the neighborhood).
For my sauce base I sautéed shallots and a small amount of garlic in a mix of butter and olive oil, just to lay down a sweet, mellow base for the broccoli. The pasta was delicious. As for whether it is exactly what Greg remembers from his trip, he’ll have to try it and let me know, but in any case I really loved this pasta. It would also make a wonderful first course for a Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve dinner.
Penne with Broccoli, Shallots, and Emmenthaler
(Serves 5 as a first course)
2 cups very small-cut broccoli flowerets, including some tender broccoli stem and leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
6 big scrapings of nutmeg
A tiny splash of dry white wine
1 pound penne or another short, chunky pasta, preferably a high-quality brand such as Latini
3 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1/4 pound Emmenthaler or Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, grated.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Drop in the broccoli pieces and blanch for 3 minutes. Scoop them from the water with a large strainer spoon into a colander and run under cold water to stop the cooking and to preserve the green color. Squeeze out excess water.
Add a generous amount of salt to the pasta cooking water and bring it back to a boil.
In a large skillet, heat the butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and the blanched broccoli, season with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg. Sauté until the broccoli is quite tender, about 5 minutes. Add a tiny splash of white wine, and let it boil away.
While the broccoli is sautéing, drop the penne into the water.
When the penne is al dente, drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Add the penne to the skillet and toss gently, adding the thyme, until the pasta is well coated. Turn off the heat, and add the Emmenthaler or Fontina, a few turns of fresh black pepper, a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water. Toss gently. Taste for salt. The consistency should be somewhat creamy. Serve right away.