When does Lidia Matticchio Bastianich sleep? The star of PBS’s popular "Lidia’s Italy," she is also chef/owner of restaurants in New York, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City. She’s a partner (with son Joe, Mario Batali and Oscar Farinetti) in New York’s wildly successful Eataly. She and son Joe have a winery in Italy. Lidia and her daughter Tanya design a line of cookware (they’ve also launched a line of pastas and sauces). Oh. And in her spare time, she writes cookbooks.
Her most recent is "Lidia’s Favorite Recipes: 100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrees," published in October 2012. She calls it her “most accessible cookbook to date, a gathering of recipes that have become her go-to meals for her very own family.” These are not the deconstructed or re-imagined recipes you’ll find in some chefs’ cookbooks (not that there’s anything wrong with that approach). The recipes here reflect yet another of Lidia’s roles, one she takes great pride in – that of Italian grandmother or nonna.
Much as grand-mères are responsible for the simple, perfect meals that I most cherish in French cuisine, nonnas have long been the source for the best of traditional Italian food. They get meals on the family table and pass their culinary skills and techniques on to daughters and granddaughters, keeping classic recipes alive. You’ll find many of them here, from veal osso buco to escarole and white bean soup, olive oil mashed potatoes, eggplant Parmigiana and savory seafood stew. "Lidia’s Favorite Recipes" is particularly rich in pasta dishes. That’s where I decided to start exploring.
I love when recipes teach me something. When I first started cooking, once something went into the pan, it was in there. Period. Then one day, I came across a recipe that had you brown an ingredient – probably meat of some sort – and remove it from the pan while you completed other steps, then return it to the pan for finishing. It was a revelation. Now it’s standard operating procedure to me, of course. Well, this recipe uses my earlier cooking style, layering flavor upon flavor as you keep adding ingredients to the pan. And it does it in a way that nonnas have always done, I think.
Besides being fairly quick and easy to prepare, this dish is just fun to cook. You put something in the pan and cook it for a bit, then make a hole in the center of the pan and add the next ingredient. After that cooks for a minute or two, you mix everything together and then make a hole for the next ingredient. The recipe was so simple and rustic, I was expecting good but basic. What I got was transcendent.
Ziti with sausage and fennel
Serves three as a main course, four or five as a primi course
1/2 pound ziti (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
1 fennel bulb, 1 pound or slightly less
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and sliced into half moons
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons finely chopped fennel fronds
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and add ziti. Cook until not quite al dente, about 2 minutes less than recommended cooking time. Drain, reserving 2 cups of pasta water. Do not rinse (see Kitchen Notes). Set aside.
While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, assemble the other ingredients. If the sausage is not bulk, remove from casings and break the meat up with your fingers. Using a sharp knife, slice off the root end of the fennel bulb and the stalks with the fronds. Reserve the stalks and fronds. Slice the bulb in half lengthwise and peel off the tough outer layer. Cut out the inner core and slice the bulb halves lengthwise into about 1/4-inch slices. You’ll probably end up with more than the 2 cups you need. You can save it for another use or go ahead and have a little more fennel in this dish.
Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet with high sides – I used a sauté pan – over medium flame. Add the sausage and cook for 1-1/2 to 2 minutes, breaking the meat up more with a wooden spoon. Push the sausage to the sides of the pan and add the onion in the center. Cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, then mix the onion and the sausage together. Create a hole in the middle again and add the fennel. Cook for a minute or so, stirring occasionally, then mix with the meat and onions. Season lightly with salt and then clear yet another hole. Add the crushed red pepper and toast for about 30 seconds. Toss to combine and make one final hole. Add the tomato paste and cook until just sizzling, 1 or 2 minutes, mashing it with the back of a wooden spoon.
Ladle in 1-1/2 cups of the reserved pasta water. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer the sauce for 5 to 6 minutes. Flavors will develop, the sauce will thicken slightly and the fennel will soften a bit (you want it to remain slightly crunchy, so don’t overcook).
Add the pasta to the pan. It will be sticking together, but don’t be alarmed. As you gently toss it with the sauce, much of it will loosen up on its own. With the more stubborn pairs of tubes, insinuate the edge of a spatula between them, and they will separate. Cook for 2 minutes or so to let the pasta absorb some of the sauce and finish cooking. Add the fennel fronds and toss to combine. If the dish is seeming a bit too dry, drizzle on a little more pasta water and mix it in.
Remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese over the pasta and toss it in. Serve immediately in shallow pasta bowls.
I like ziti. For years, our go-to tubular pasta has been penne. But with its ridged sides, it can be thick and chewy. This recipe is the first time I’ve cooked with ziti, and I have to say, I love its thinner walls.
Starch is good. You often hear the reason to not rinse pasta is that the starch from the cooking water helps the sauce stick to it. That’s the case with this dish in letters five miles high. When you plate the pasta, there will be no sauce to speak of left in the skillet. It’s all clinging to the pasta, sausage and vegetables, not so much a sauce as a flavorful coating.