Six Categories of Foods Rule – My Spaghetti Verrigni Recipe with Artichokes, Prawns, Pancetta and Pecorino

This being my very first post on my new blog,  I thought it would be apt for me to write about a recipe that is truly my own, and the brainchild not, as can be my custom, of a thrifty use of leftovers but, instead, of a dedicated constellation of ingredients in honour of a great Italian pasta brand, Verrigni.  My husband and I visited their offices in Abbruzzo at the end of last summer and came away with boxes of their pasta, as well as some Valentini olive oil that they were stocking and jars of their own tomato sauces for which they had received a special mention of excellency in the Gambero Rosso magazine.

Now, while the pairing of fish and artichokes is playfully encouraged in modern Italian cuisine, and whilst the use of grated pecorino cheese is sagaciously tolerated in fish dishes such as pasta with mussels (pasta con le cozze e pecorino) or pasta with swordfish (pasta di pesce spada e pecorino), a further addition of pork fat by way of pancetta is rather pushing things a bit, believe me.  Risqué even.  True, a king prawn enveloped in a sliver of snow-white fat (lardo di Colonnata) and left to melt for a few minutes in the oven makes for a dainty dish on an antipasti or finger-food platter but – and this is the point I am making – we are speaking of only two ingredients: the prawns and the lardo.   The gastronomic ford I was about to wade through with my recipe was not a shallow one.  Fish and dairy? fish and meat? no, they do not usually meet and greet in the Italian kitchen.   And, what’s more, I would be breaking the unspoken commandment that underpins this culinary tradition, and one I usually fully uphold, and that is the prescriptive ‘Thou Shalt Not Transubstantiate More than Six Types of Foods in Any Pasta Dish’ !  Ask any woeful Italian lamenting a disappointing pasta eaten abroad and the most common pitfall will be the mish-mash of far too many ingredients in the pasta dish.

The six food categories I refer to are the following: 1. Vegetables  (any amount – from garlic and onions to tomatoes and kale and herbs of course), 2. Fats  (evoo,  butter, or even lard) 3. Cheese (parmesan, pecorino, ricotta etc), 4. the Pasta itself, 5. Salt (salt is one of the most important ingredients and never to be overlooked) and Pepper or Peperoncino (chilli) and, last, 6. Meat OR Fish).  I, instead, was going to include both meat AND fish.  I knew I was crossing the line … such is the trepidation of a home cook embarking on an iconoclastic pasta journey.1

Hopeful as I am of raising a smile in the reader just as I myself smile as I write these words, I do have to come clean and say that I wasn’t being totally tongue-in-cheek about crossing the line.  It is usually what experienced chefs do, and magisterially so since that is their profession.  I already mentioned my doubts over fusion cooking and self-appointed ‘creative’ cooks in a post last year ( and have no problem reiterating this opinion here.  One has to be a really experienced cook and know what one is doing in order to be properly ‘creative’ and produce something truly good.  At the same time, if one enjoys cooking and wants to push boundaries … nothing is set in stone in one’s own kitchen, and trying out something new and going with a hunch can be very life-enhacing.  Even catastrophes are to be welcomed because something is always learned thereby.  What it all boils down to, I think, is respect.  Respect for the ingredients, for the culinary tradition and for the cook himself or herself.  That is the only bottom line that should not be crossed.

Ingredients: olive oil, dried mint leaves, garlic, fresh herbs, prawns, pancetta, artichokes, Spaghetti, freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, salt  (and yes … these are 7 and not 6 food categories!)

2I bruised a couple of cloves of garlic and added them to a puddle of olive oil, sprinkling just a hint of dried mint.  Mint and artichokes are traditionally a hefty part of the Spring dish ‘Vignarola’ … and I wanted to evoke the expectancy of longer, sunnier days of Spring in this dish.

3I then proceeded to cook artichokes in that saucepan, over a medium flame.  The artichokes had been trimmed and sliced into quarters.

4While the artichokes were cooking I sliced up some pancetta.

5As you can see, I left the pancetta slices quite large … large enough for me to fish them out easily later on.

6 I grated some Pecorino Romano (Brunelli brand) and set it aside.

8I peeled the prawns and removed the unsightly gut running through their backs.

9 Newcomers to Italy are often surprised to learn that Italians tend to shun garlic in the kitchen, often removing it from a dish as soon as it has imparted its taste to whatever is sizzling in the pan.  Also, the clove of garlic tends to be used whole or even unpeeled.  I, instead, wanted a sharp dose of garlic taste in my dish and cut up the cloves of garlic to increase their donation.  I also added about a tablespoon of fresh parsely.  This is the old fashioned way of cooking prawns: olive oil, garlic and parsely.  Please note, however, that at the appointed time, I would add only the cooked prawns to the pasta sauce, and leave the garlic  behind.

10Please notice that I added the prawns even before the garlic had turned golden.

11I sprinkled some salt and tossed the prawns in the pan.

12I cooked the prawns for very little time … probably less three minutes … before removing from the heat and setting aside.  Overcooking prawns makes them go rubbery.

13The spaghetti were boiling away.  The artichokes were cooked too.  As were the slices of pancetta.

14 I cooked the spaghetti for half the time suggested on the packet.  I put the spaghetti directly into the large saucepan with the artichokes.  I added some cooking water and started stirring.

15I kept adding the cooking water, as much as was required, stirring all the while, until the spaghetti were done and a nice ‘creamy’ sauce was there to bathe them in. I now switched off the heat.

16I added about half the pecorino cheese I had grated, and mixed it in. I wanted to add the cheese before the prawns, because otherwise they would have been bruised.

17It tasted good already … even without the prawns.

19I gave the prawns one very quick transit over a high flame, just to re-heat them but not overcook them …

20And voilà — the prawns reigning over the spaghetti with artichokes. I used a pair of tongs to transfer the prawns from their saucepan to this one, thereby leaving the garlic behind.

21Here they are just before being served.  Please do not ask me why … why on earth ! … I did not manage to take a photo of the spaghetti served on the plate.  This was a few weeks ago and I cannot remember …

What I do remember is that I served the spaghetti in a ‘mound’, in the centre of a flat plate.  I placed a few prawns on top of this mound, and sprinkled pecorino cheese around the mound.  I did NOT include the pancetta … the pancetta was there only and primarily to impart a ‘richness’ in order to enhance the variety of tastes lingering on the palate.  The actual eating of the pancetta with the spaghetti would have ruined this balance and the pancetta would have ‘dominated’ and completely taken over the less robust taste of the prawns.

So,  I suppose that in a sneaky sort of fashion … I did follow the rule of no more than six categories of foods,  albeit in a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sort of way!

And was this pasta recipe good, you might ask?  Yes.  Yes.  Very immodestly yes.

Shame about no final photo on the plate …