Bucatini All’ Amatriciana

Despite the fact that my mother occasionally fed our family Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs, I still like Italian foods. Actually, every few years I buy a can of the Chef’s meatballs and spaghetti to remind myself that it is really quite good. Not great, but a good choice for dinner alone at the cabin on a cold night.

Of all Italian dishes, I really like pizza and pasta. So do most Americans. About three billion pizzas are sold every year in the United States and according to a survey conducted by Oxfam a few years ago, pasta is more popular worldwide than any other food. It is more popular than meat or rice, two favorites in large areas of the world.

When you go to your neighborhood supermarket, you will find dozens of choices for pasta. Shells, macaroni, spaghetti, fettuccine, penne, rigatoni and lasagna noodles are available in almost every store. Bucatini is less common but well worth the search.

Bucatini is sort of like a thick hollow spaghetti. You can find it in ten or twelve-inch lengths like spaghetti or chopped into shorter pieces. That is the kind I have found locally. Bucatini holds the sauce well and, cooked to al dente, has a nice bite to it. If you can’t find bucatini, don’t let that stop you from making this recipe. You can substitute rigatoni or penne. Of course, then you should call it Rigatoni or Penne all’ Amatriciana.

Actually, the “Amatriciana” refers to the sauce, “sugo all’ Amatriciana,” which is said to have been invented in Amatrice, a small Italian town. Thus “Bucatini all’ Amatriciana” means roughly “Bucatini as they eat it in Amatrice.” Not all food historians agree, and Rome has tried to claim title to the dish, but whatever you call it, this simple dish almost certainly was invented by peasant farmers and shepherds in the mountains northeast of Rome.

More than half of the buildings in Amatrice were severely damaged or destroyed by the severe earthquake that hit the town of 2,650 people on August 24, 2016, and 234 people were killed. I first learned about this recipe because of the earthquake. Chefs around the world began cooking versions of bucatini or spaghetti all’ Amatriciana and donating the profits to earthquake relief. Some of the news stories included recipes, and I decided to try one. The recipe below is different from what I first read. It is simpler and probably closer to what was the original “sugo all’ Amatriciana.”

Here is what you do.

INGREDIENTS:
1/2 lb. pancetta, hog jowl or very thick sliced bacon
3 T olive oil
1 medium onion (3 inch diameter)
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1/2 tsp. chili pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 lb. bucatini
1/2 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

PROCEDURE:

Bucatini all’ Amatriciana is traditionally made with pancetta, which is an unsmoked cured bacon made from hog jowl. Bacon and jowl in the United States are smoked. Therefore, unless you buy pancetta, you need to remove the smoked flavor from the meat. You won’t get it all out, but boiling water removes a lot of the smoky flavor. Here is how to do it.

If you were fortunate enough to obtain a piece of slab bacon or a hog jowl, cut slices that are about a third of an inch thick, then chop the slices into one-third-inch pieces. Otherwise, just chop your bacon into half-inch pieces. Heat a two-quart pan of water. When the water comes to a boil, put the meat into the water. Bring the pan back to a boil and cook the bacon for two minutes. Drain the water from the bacon.

Clean and chop the onion into a quarter-inch dice. Grate the cheese.

Put three tablespoons of olive oil into a two quart saucepan and add the pancetta or bacon. Cook over medium heat until the meat is crisp but not burned. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set it aside.

Sauté the onion in the pan until it is translucent but not brown, then add the diced tomatoes along with the chili pepper flakes and about an eighth teaspoon of salt and pepper. Once the sauce is boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for about twenty minutes. Stir occasionally to make sure that it is not burning.

While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to boiling and add about a teaspoon of salt. Cook the pasta according to directions on the package, usually ten to twelve minutes or a little longer.

Just before the pasta is done transfer the sauce to a large skillet over moderate heat. Stir to make sure that it does not scorch. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Drain the pasta and stir it into the sauce along with the meat. Cook for about half a minute, then remove the skillet from the heat. Sprinkle on the cheese and mix well.

Serve with a glass of good Italian red wine, salad, bread and extra cheese for guests to add as they wish.

NOTES: Amatriciana sauce is traditionally made with Pecorino Romano, a hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. It is one of the oldest Italian cheeses and descriptions by Latin writers of how farmers made this cheese are over 2,000 years old. You can find it in some specialty food stores or you can substitute domestic Romano or Parmesan cheese.

My wine of choice to serve with Bucatini All’ Amatriciana is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a hearty red wine made from the Montepulciano grape native to eastern Italy near Amatrice.

This recipe serves four to six diners.

Spinach, Beef and Ravioli Soup

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my father took me one day for a long walk in the woods behind my Grandpa Hopp’s farm. As I remember we were hunting for grouse, but today I think that the real reason was that Dad wanted to teach me a little history. It was a beautiful fall day, the leaves were off the trees and it was easy walking through the mile of county forest between Grandpa’s farm and Crane Lake, part of the Chippewa Flowage.

I remember two things most clearly about that walk. The first were the huge stumps left from the “logging days” when lumberjacks were cutting the white pine forests that covered much of northern Wisconsin. When I asked why they cut the trees so far from the ground, Dad explained that the trees were cut in the winter and that the men were often standing on two or three feet of snow when they were working.

I found one of those pine stumps many years after that walk when I was fishing brook trout on the Marengo River. Here is a photo of my fishing partner Earl standing next to it.Pine Stump May 2000

The second thing that I remember was the logging road that Dad showed me. It ran straight and nearly level through the woods. If he had not called it to my attention, I might have missed seeing it because there were big trees growing on it. In the summer, I learned, the loggers built roads to get the logs to water where they could be floated to sawmills. These men had smoothed the cradle knolls and built a corduroy road over a swampy spot. They had even dug through a ridge that must have been six or seven feet high. In the winter teams of horses or oxen moved the logs on sleighs pulled in iced tracks on these roads.

I don’t think that we brought home any grouse from that walk with my dad, but I am sure that we had meat for supper anyway. Except for breakfast, meat was part of nearly every meal. Sometimes it was only the meat from a pork hock in a pot of soup, but it was enough to satisfy the carnivore in us.

I do understand that farm animals contribute to the production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, so that reducing our consumption of meat is one small way of helping fight climate change. However, I am not ready to welcome “Meatless Mondays” as many people have, but I admit that I enjoy Cheese and Bean Burritos and some other vegetarian dishes today even though they are lacking what my father would have considered an essential ingredient of any supper dish.

I have also discovered that just a little bit of meat will go a long way if it is used creatively. This was my mother’s strategy when she made her boiled dinner. One pork hock flavored the vegetables and broth which was paired with homemade bread and a big piece of cake for dessert. It was an economical way to feed a big family.

This recipe for a hearty soup is one that my mother would approve. A half pound of meat is enough to satisfy four hungry diners when it is part of this delicious soup.

INGREDIENTS:

1/2 lb. lean beef
3 cups water
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup diced onion
1 T minced garlic (4 or 5 cloves)
1 can beef broth (2 cups)
2 or 3 Roma tomatoes
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
Dash of ground cayenne (optional)
8 ounces ravioli (beef, mushroom or cheese)
3 cups baby spinach
1 T cornstarch in 1/4 cup cold water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese

PROCEDURE:

Slice the beef into thin strips about an inch long and put them into a saucepan along with three cups of water and two beef bouillon cubes. Bring the pan to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the meat until it is tender, forty-five minutes to an hour, depending on what cut of beef you use.

If the ravioli is frozen, allow it to thaw while the beef is cooking. Meanwhile, clean and chop the onion into a quarter-inch dice and set it aside in a small bowl. Remove the paper and stem ends from the garlic cloves and put the minced garlic in another small bowl.

Coat the bottom of a four-quart saucepan over low heat with a teaspoon of olive oil and cook the onion, stirring often, until it is translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute, then stir in the beef and bouillon and the beef broth. Raise the heat to medium.

While the soup is heating, wash and remove the stem scars from the tomatoes and chop them into a quarter-inch dice. Stir them into the soup along with the basil, oregano and cayenne (if you wish). Bring the pan back to a boil and add the ravioli. When the pan returns to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the soup for about ten minutes while you wash and coarsely chop the spinach.

Dissolve a tablespoon of cornstarch in a quarter cup of cold water and stir it into the soup when the ravioli is nearly done. Continue cooking for a minute or two, then add the spinach and gently stir the soup until the spinach has wilted.

Taste and adjust the seasoning. You can add a little instant beef bouillon if the soup needs more salt. Serve with good bread and pass a cheese grater or a bowl of grated Parmesan.