Pasta alla Norcina

You may have noticed that I didn’t keep up with last year’s resolution to practice new cooking techniques. Again, putting effort into myself, even if to one day have more success in putting effort into someone else, eventually lost its appeal. The time, the apathy, the dishes. I just cannot be bothered. I’m totally fine being able to talk endlessly about recipes and techniques without actually completing them. I’m not sure what that makes me, but I can live with the probable negative connotation.

But not wanting to practice roasting a turkey or searing a steak doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally put more effort into dinner than a pot of oatmeal. I just don’t care to cook to become better at this juncture. I cook to fulfill a craving or bring comfort. And as with oatmeal, it is almost always in the form of a carbohydrate that can be eaten with one piece of cutlery from one dish in front of the television. So, as cold temperatures and the new year trend of reining in spending have me at home on weekend nights, I have more time to cook (weeknights get at most 15 minutes of dinner prep) right now. Recipes will return. Easy recipes. One-bowl recipes. All gluten-friendly recipes. Count on at least three… this is no resolution.

Speaking of television, today’s recipe comes from an episode of America’s Test Kitchen (ATK), from a season that is currently available on (U.S.) Netflix. I’m pretty dedicated to listening to the ATK podcast, even if the banter between Christopher and Bridget gets repetitive and expected. I love their knowledge! Like with The Food Lab of Serious Eats, I like the testing and science behind their recipes. They’re rarely creative or trendy, and everything seems very American even when they pull from elsewhere, but I can appreciate and like learning how they strive to perfect recipes that generally everyone enjoys eating. They are nerds, and as someone who is also a nerd, I identify with their motivation and approach.

A recipe for pasta alla norcina intrigued me one night enough to track down the recipe. While essentially just a sausage and mushroom dish, what makes it different is that you make your own sausage out of ground pork. Sausage from the town of Norcia does not contain fennel and red pepper like the Italian sausage easily found in grocery stores. So, to  recreate the flavours of the region, Chris and the gang have you quickly cure ground pork with baking soda, water, and salt, and infuse it with garlic, rosemary, and nutmeg.

It presents as a simple dish, but there are quite a few intermediary steps that require you to be conscious of the directions and your time. I wanted to do the recipe proud, so I meticulously prepped my mise en place and had all necessary equipment at the ready before starting anything. This of course meant that making the dish, just for myself, took much longer than it should have. Because of this, I won’t be making it again anytime soon. But don’t let that deter you. I’m sure it would be billed as an “easy weeknight meal.” I made no mistakes, I just left nothing up to chance. Slow and steady to win this race. And I did. Because despite the use of many ramekins, chopping mushrooms finer than seems necessary, and measuring out 1/8 teaspoons, I was left with one of the best tasting bowls of pasta I have ever made. The pork did transform to a savoury sausage, with the rosemary and garlic being identifiable but not overpowering. The finely chopped mushrooms melted into the sauce to function as an earthy background flavour instead of chewy chunks. The cream and parmesan (subbed for pecorino as I already had a hunk) came together with the pasta water to envelope everything in a silky sauce that had enough body to satisfy. My fears of stodgy richness were unfounded.

 

I’ll be funny and say that it tasted like it came from a (good) restaurant, because I find that homemade pasta never really does (extra funny now that I see the  posted recipe makes such a claim). I’ve had many delicious pasta dinners from my own kitchen and from others, but rare is the time when I thought any of those plates had the same punch and satisfaction that can come from a kitchen that inevitably takes a heavier hand with oil, butter, salt, spice, or rare ingredients. This pasta alla norcina doesn’t push decadence, but I wonder if because the testing and perfecting is what has been pushed, the harmony of ingredients enables an amateur like me to make something SO good she considers it could pass for professional. This is what endears ATK to me.

Even better is that I got to have something so good in one of my favourite places: my armchair, illuminated by the glow of the television, and with a tea towel as a place mat.

Pasta alla Norcina – America’s Test Kitchen

Unlike most from ATK, this recipe was made available for free. Perhaps because it was broadcast on public television.  Either way, I’m thankful that I didn’t have to go scouting blogs to see if someone else had made it. In fact, the entire episode is available, and if you skip to minute 14:22 in the video, you can watch the segment that outlines how you make the dish. I found it helpful.

The only changes I made were the shape of pasta used and adding extra grated cheese before serving. The recipe serves two; before adding the pasta, I removed half the sauce, stored it in the fridge, and used it as a subsequent homemade pizza topping. Note that the amounts listed in the video are for four servings/one pound of pasta.

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