I’ve been in a pasta rut lately, but thanks to the latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens, I rediscovered the technique of making a pan sauce to give my tired old pasta a new twist and a boost in flavor. This pan sauce is full of bold color and taste , made with bacon, mushroom, chard, and ricotta. Orecchiette, the oval-shaped pasta from the southern Italian region of Puglia, is a good choice for this dish because its slight bowl shape is perfect for catching the cheesy sauce which has a slight hint of spice from crushed red pepper flakes and nutmeg. The orecchiette’s edges are thicker than it’s center for some added texture.
This pasta dish is so versatile and can really be made with what vegetables you have on hand. It’s great for lunch or dinner, perhaps with a slice of garlic bread and a salad. It’s also a convenient dish to serve at parties or picnics because it is delicious served warm or at room temperature. It is a hearty dish, perfect for the cooler months ahead.
Here are a few tips to make a pan sauce that would be a great alternative to traditional pasta sauces.
- Use a flavorful oil, aromatics, and spices. Good-quality extra virgin olive oil or bacon fat, combined with shallots and garlic builds a delicious base for the sauce. Deglaze the pan with wine to release the flavorful bits stuck to the pan. Spice up the sauce with some crushed red pepper, nutmeg, paprika, or chile powder.
- Add fresh vegetables or greens. Leafy greens like kale, chard, or spinach make a healthy additions (you might not want to use the bacon fat mentioned above if you’re aiming for a healthy dish) to a pan sauce as do fresh corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, asparagus, green beans, or peas. I especially like using chard, not only for its delicious greens, but also for added texture of the stems, which retains its crispness after cooking.
- Add some liquid. Adding a little of the pasta cooking water pulls the sauce together and makes it creamy. You may also use chicken or vegetable broth.
- Add cheese. Ricotta, mascarpone, mozzarella add richness and creaminess to the sauce while feta and parmesan adds a salty flavor. Grated cheese on top makes the perfect garnish.
Orecchiette with Mushroom, Chard, and Ricotta Pan Sauce
Yields 4 servings
1 to 2 large bunches of green or rainbow Swiss chard, to taste
6 to 8 ounces of bacon, chopped (I use diced pancetta from the deli section of Trader Joes or Fresh and Easy)
16 ounces dried orecchiette pasta, or other bite-sized pasta
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I used the rendered fat from the pancetta)
1 large shallot, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
10 ounces assorted mushrooms, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces (I used oyster, cremini, baby portabella, and shiitake mushrooms)
1/4 cup white wine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, finely chopped
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes, to taste, optional
2 ounces Asiago, parmesan, or pecorino, freshly grated, plus more for garnish (I used both Asiago and parmesan cheeses)
1/2 cup fresh, whole-milk ricotta cheese, plus more for garnish
1 to 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg, to taste
cherry tomatoes, cut in half, to taste
Separate chard stems from leaves; cut both in bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
In a deep large skillet, cook bacon or pancetta until browned and crispy. Remove bacon and drain on a paper towel. If desired, leave about 2 tablespoons of fat in the skillet and use it to sauté the vegetables.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boiling. Add orecchiette to boiling water. Set timer for 10 minutes.
While pasta is cooking, heat butter and olive oil or bacon fat in a skillet used to cook the bacon. (For added flavor, do not wash skillet to get all the bacon flavor into the sauce.) Sauté shallots and garlic over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add mushrooms and chard stems, stirring occasionally until softened, about 5-6 minutes. Deglaze pan with white wine to loosen all the bits of flavor from the pan. Add thyme and parsley and season with salt and black pepper. Turn heat on low until pasta and chard leaves are cooked.
After 10 minutes of cooking pasta, add chard leaves and blanche for 2 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid.
Add pasta and chard leaves into skillet with the mushrooms. Place over lowest heat setting. Add crushed red pepper, and about 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water. Add grated cheese and ricotta and stir to until well combined. Add ground nutmeg. Add the cherry tomatoes and sprinkle most of the bacon, saving some for garnish. Add more of the pasta water, if needed, to make the sauce creamy. Taste and adjust seasonings with more salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and nutmeg.
Divide among four bowls. Top each serving with 1 tablespoon ricotta, if desired. Add additional grated cheese and the rest of the pancetta.
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens, September 2012 issue
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