Recipe: Cavatappi with Radicchio, Fontina, and Walnuts
Radicchio sometimes has me stumped. Bringing those pretty red things into my kitchen can send me straight to cooking block hell. Another salad with a scattering of radicchio? That’s just not how it’s supposed to be. In Italy, no matter how popular the tre colore salad has become there, most people serve radicchio cooked. But when it’s heated, its bitter taste and diminished beauty can be disheartening. However, I took a vow many years ago never to be defeated by any vegetable. And so it will be.
The challenge is to find flavors that marry well with radicchio’s bitterness. That isn’t an issue when I’m just throwing it into a salad, but cook it and its flavor opens up, wandering all over the dish, making it hard to imagine served any way other than unadorned. Still, I’ve had my triumphs, getting my best results by adding strong or rich contrasting flavors such as anchovies, pancetta, and certain distinct cheeses, like gorgonzola or the fontina I’ve used in this pasta. Fontina is very umami. It’s a complex and truly savory cheese. It tempers the cooked radicchio, making it alluringly bitter, not overbearingly so. It melts into a creamy sauce, clinging to the pasta and to the vegetables but without the one-note quality you can get when you simply add a flood of cream.
I find three types of radicchio, a member of the chicory family, in my markets, although in Italy there are many more. The round, tightly wound Chioggia variety is a constant presence in all food shops. The long, dark, red-striped Rosso di Treviso I see mostly in cool months. The radicchio that looks like a glamorous, fully blooming rose, white with thin pinkish striping, the one from Castelfranco, I find only occasionally. These and all the other varieties were originally developed in the Veneto and Trentino regions.
With its rich, well-defined flavors, this dish is for me a clear example of a pasta best as a first course, the way it’s almost always served in Italy. In my effort to balance carbs, proteins, and fats in my own diet, I’ve been trying to reacquaint myself with the true Mediterranean diet. Pasta, except on holidays, was a main course in my family, and that’s what I got used to growing up. Reining in my Italian-American habit of eating has not always been successful. I still love sitting down to a huge bowl of pasta and nothing else. But in Italian tradition, one pound of pasta serves six. (Really.) That’s not such a hardship. Small can be big. It makes me delight in every mouthful. I’d follow this pasta with a piece of roasted chicken and a green salad. That’s a well balanced meal.
Cavatappi with Radicchio, Fontina, and Walnuts
1 pound cavatappi
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium-size round radicchio, cored and cut into approximately 1-inch-thick strips
2 large leeks, the white and tender green parts, diced
1 cup really fresh walnut halves
A splash of sweet Marsala, or another semi-sweet wine
A few big scrapings of fresh nutmeg
½ pound fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, cut into small cubes
A generous handful of flat-leaf parsley, lightly chopped
A few sage leaves, lightly chopped
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water. Add a generous amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the cavatappi, and give it a stir so it doesn’t stick together.
In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the leeks, and sauté until just starting to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the radicchio and the walnuts, seasoning with a little salt. Sauté until the walnuts are fragrant and the radicchio has wilted, about another 4 minutes. Add the Marsala and the nutmeg, and cook about a minute longer.
Turn the heat to low, and add the fontina, stirring it around to help it melt. Turn off the heat.
When the cavatappi is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the skillet, along with enough pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce. Stir until the fontina has melted (off the heat should work well, as the heat from the pasta and the skillet will be just enough to finish cooking the sauce). Transfer to a big bowl, add the fresh herbs, and toss gently. Serve hot.