A couple weeks ago, I had two vegetarian friends (Phil from NYC and Reba from Maine) coming for dinner (plus Axel F of course), so it seemed like a perfect time to try out this intriguing recipe (Pennette with Swiss Chard Ragu) I read in a Mario Batali cookbook that our friends Keith and Heather gave us for a wedding present. The cookbook is really fantastic - it's the kind of Italian cooking where there are about 4 ingredients, and the preparation is pretty simple, but the flavor is great. I had a beautiful bunch of chard from the winter CSA, so it was perfect. Sorry - only one (rather poor) photo taken when Phil was having seconds and suggested I should blog it...
You'll see, this is another one of those nearly-no-ingredients meals, but it was so so good. Plus the extra beauty of this recipe is that you can make the ragu ahead of time - which was great since I was teaching late that night (our friends and I were converging on my house all at the same time). So I made the ragu the night before, and kept it in the fridge, then all I had to do when we all got to my house was boil pasta and reheat the chard and toast some breadcrumbs.
Pasta with Swiss Chard Ragu
adapted from Mario Batali's Molto Gusto
Ingredients (I'll put my changes and additions in brackets):
-1/4 c extra virgin olive oil [I probably added a bit more than this during the cooking process]
-1 small white onion, halved and sliced 1/4 inch thick
-3 [or 4] garlic cloves, smashed and peeled [and coarsely chopped]
-1 pound Swiss Chard, trimmed and sliced 1/4 inch thick [I chopped up the stems separately into a pretty small dice, and just did the leaves in 1/4 inch ribbons]
-4 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
-salt and pepper [Batali lists salt twice, first Maldon salt or other flaky sea salt, which at something like $80/lb, I have never tried... I'm sure flaky salt is miraculously wonderful and all... but I just used regular kosher salt, which he also calls for later in the ingredient list. I think we can just use one kind of salt and still live with ourselves]
-1 pound pennette [I used spaghetti instead, it was really nice actually]
-3/4 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus extra for serving
-1/2 c coarse fresh bread crumbs [plus another crushed garlic clove and some crushed red pepper flakes]
-[I also roasted some grape tomatoes to toss in, see below]
How I did it:
Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a large, wide bottomed pot. Add the garlic, onions a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes if you want, and the chard stems - they ought to cook a little before you add the leaves, since they're tougher. Stir it all around and season with salt to help the onions and the stems soften. After a minute or so, add the chard leaves, a little more salt, and some freshly ground pepper, and let cook another 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally to encourage the chard to wilt down. Then add 1/4 c of water and cover and reduce the heat to low. Let it cook another 20 minutes or so, until it is very soft (continue to stir occasionally).
Now in the recipe, he adds the butter chunks, stirs till they melt, and then he says you can stop here, set the ragu aside to cool and store in the fridge for up to 2 days. I left the butter step till later - because I felt like something special probably happens when the cold butter emulsifies into the hot chard juices, so I wanted to do that right before serving. So I stored it pre-butter.
When you're ready to eat, put a big pot of water on for the pasta (once it's at a full boil add a generous amount of salt and the pasta and stir around), put the ragu in a very large, deep saucepan (big enough to hold the addition of the cooked pound of pasta when the time comes), and warm the ragu gently - when it's hot is when I would stir in the 4 tbsp of butter.
For the breadcrumbs, I ground up in the food processor about 3 slices of some bread I had made that was a few days old, and good only for toasted breadcrumbs by then. I been baking earlier in the morning, so I took the opportunity to put the breadcrumbs on a baking sheet (tossed them thoroughly with a few tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper) and put them into a 350 oven for about ten minutes. I set it aside, on the pan, while I left for the day to teach. When I was back home and the pasta was boiling, I turned on the broiler and put them under the broiler and kept pretty constant watch over them, stirring a couple of times so they didn't burn.
You could also do them in one step, in a non-stick frying pan: heat 2 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp butter, a peeled and crushed clove of garlic, and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, add in the breadcrumbs, toss around thoroughly to get all the oil distributed among the bread evenly, and fry, stirring semi-constantly, until they start to turn golden and sound dry in the pan.
Either way set the breadcrumbs (once golden) aside in a bowl to keep them from over-browning.
When the pasta is al dente, drain (saving a little pasta water) and add it to the chard ragu along with 1/4 cup of the pasta water, and toss the pasta with the ragu over medium heat until the pasta looks evenly coated with the chard sauce. Add more pasta water if things look dry. Add the cheese and toss around to combine. As the pasta water heats, the starch in it thickens and turns silky - yum.
OH YES, the tomatoes! I had some grape tomatoes (one of those rectangular packages, not the small square ones) - I had roasted them ahead of time with olive oil, salt and pepper, at 350 for 30 or 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they looked collapsed and a little golden. I tossed these with the finished pasta. They made for a nice bright contrast to the deep dark ragu flavor. Consider this an optional addition, but it was darn good.
Serve the pasta with the breadcrumbs and additional cheese on the side.