Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pasta with Italian Sausage, Asparagus and Zucchini

As you know, the Christmas before last my student Nicole gave me these lovely gifts I wrote about here. The peanut butter and green tea pear mints are long gone (the peanut butter has actually been replaced a couple of times), but the pasta has been hanging around waiting for me to find a good use for it. I kind of got it in my head that I wanted to make some kind of ragu to serve with the pasta, maybe something like the fabulous rabbit ragu served over pappardelle I had at Bice* at a publisher dinner several years ago.

I even bought the rabbit. I was going to ask them to cut it up for me at the Apple Market but it was frozen. The butcher said they could do it, but they would have to wait for it to defrost and I would have to pick it up later so I opted for whole and took it home and threw it in the freezer. (And you wonder why I am always complaining about how full my freezer is.) And there it stayed, because I had absolutely no idea how I was going to turn a whole rabbit into a stew. At one time I even invited Bob to dinner, thinking that would be the incentive for me to cook it up because I know he likes rabbit. But for some reason it didn't work out the first time we tried it, and then something happened the second time but I had already taken the rabbit out of the freezer (sorry Bob, I never told you about this) so I needed to cook it regardless.

The October '07 issue of Saveur was all about Chicago, and included a recipe for Sunday Gravy, a hearty tomato ragu that sounded like it might be a good vehicle in which to cook my rabbit. You basically roast the meat first, then braise it in a tomato-white wine sauce. It looked like exactly the preparation I had envisioned for my hearty little hare.

But I was unprepared for how much the rabbit looked like . . . a rabbit. It did not look like a chicken or turkey, the only other whole animals I have cooked in my kitchen. What should that matter? you might ask. Meat is meat, right? Well, yes and no. Meat is meat, but it is not put together the same way on each animal. I had no idea how to cut it up, and didn't think to look online until just now. It's not like I was expecting a delicate web of connective tissue to point the way to where and how I should be separating the carcass, but that is how I know where to go when I am cutting up a chicken.

But I managed to hack it up into four semi-recognizable pieces and I roasted them in the oven. And then I followed the recipe for the Sunday Gravy. But I was not happy with the results. I don't think it was the rabbit, although using that instead of pork, lamb and italian sausage had to make some difference. It was the sauce itself that was disappointing to me. It might have been the tomatoes. The sauce was more acidic than I was expecting, especially after being simmered for hours on the stovetop. Maybe I should have looked harder for a recipe that specifically called for rabbit.

I was disappointed enough with the dish that I decided to hold off on the Mother-in-Law's tongue. I have not given up on the rabbit, but I think next time I will be more patient, and have them cut it for me. I need to get more familiar with how the meat cooks before I tackle another whole one. And I definitely have to find a better sauce.

But every time I passed my pantry I would see that bag of pasta and think, "I've got to find something to do with that!" And then I realized one day a couple of weeks ago that I might have the right ingredients on hand to do justice to the pretty noodles.

One of the other things I had bought at the Apple Market was some home-made Sweet Italian Sausage. I also usually have some heavy cream on hand these days for ganache experimentation. I have been taking full advantage of asparagus season, as well as those beautiful baby zucchini that pop up right about now. Surely I could come up with some kind of sauce that would bring all of those flavors together?

I decided to try my hand at a white sauce. I usually avoid them because of all the cream and butter, but I had plenty of both on hand, including some really cool butter I will show you soon (and will truly seal my fate as a food snob/geek. But I don't care because it's that cool).

So I put my big pasta pot on one burner to start the water boiling and heated up about a tablespoon of olive oil in a big skillet on another burner. I took the Italian sausage out of its casing and started browning it, then added shallots and garlic. Once the sausage was browned I added a cup of heavy cream, added salt and pepper to taste, and left it to simmer so the cream would reduce. After about 20 minutes I added some blanched sliced zucchini and asparagus. I thought I was adding it about the time I would be starting the pasta because I didn't want the vegetables to cook too long, but it took the sauce longer to reduce than I thought it would so they cooked too long and started to get a little mushy by the time I put the pasta in the pot.

I was a little worried that I had hung onto the pasta too long for the colors to show up very much, but I was wrong:This picture doesn't really do it justice, but the colors were bright and fresh and really made the pasta look interesting. Once it was cooked up, I added a tablespoon of butter to my cream sauce and then poured the pasta into the skillet to let it mix up with the sauce. I chopped up some fresh parsley and some Nicoise olives I had left over from my Salade Nicoisette, and garnished the plate with those and some pre-grated pecorino cheese I bought at Treasure Island.

And it tasted pretty good, if I do say so myself. The main thing I would do differently next time is that I would wait even longer to add the zucchini and asparagus. They don't really need to cook so if they go in too soon they get too mushy. But the flavors were definitely there. The noodles are dense and chewy and the sausage stands up to the big pasta with just the right amount of flavor.
As it turns out, I'm glad I did not use the rabbit ragu with this pasta. The redness of the sauce would have covered up all of those beautiful lines of color.

I'm not going to post a recipe with this because I don't think I have perfected it yet. But if you want to re-create it, you couldn't go too far wrong if you use the same method I described up above. And if you ever see Mother-in-Law's Tongue pasta for sale anywhere, grab it. It's really fun!

*I was going to link to their website but it has the most godawful music playing on it. I wouldn't want to inflict that on anyone.


Anonymous said...

That looks fantastic. I still have to get you out this way to go to Caputo's with me.

Oh, the other herb that I forgot last night is tarragon.


dejamo said...

Thanks, Lynda. Yes, I would love to go to Caputo's.

Tarragon is an interesting herb. I know the French love to do all kinds of fun things with it, but I mainly use it with eggs and would love to have the chance to experiment with some fresh.

Anonymous said...

The other thing I have used it for is to flavor butter. It works really well.

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