When you think of Italians, it is likely that several characteristics come to mind. Sylish, perhaps. Romantic, sophisticated, passionate. Unless you’ve spent a fair amount of time with them, I doubt you associate with them the words picky, stubborn or dogmatic.
Prepare to be disillusioned.
Italians don’t like eating things with too many flavors going on. They like simple, familiar, traditional dishes. Mention the words pizza, pesto and shrimp together in a single culinary creation and you will have earned yourself one condescending, Italian sneer. (I know this from firsthand experience.)
The Italian phrase which sums up this gastronomical hegemony is ‘mettere un po’ di tutto,’ or ‘to put in a little of everything.’ While here in gli Stati Uniti chefs earn praise and notoriety for dreaming up creative concoctions, an Italian would shrink away, horrified, from foods we consider basic or mundane. Eggs for breakfast: disgustose. Barbequed chicken pizza: ma, dai! Salad dressing: Madonna, che paura! Mettere un po’ di tutto is not a good thing to an Italian. In fact, it is a very bad thing. If you proffer a dish to an Italian and they ask what’s in it (notice the look of suspicion) and if, after you’ve told them, they smile sardonically, cock an eyebrow, give little nod and say, ‘Ah, hai messo un po’ di tutto!’ you can bet you will be dining alone.
Of all the things Italians hold sacred, pasta, and of course someone’s mamma, are probably the two most inflammatory topics you could pick if looking to be cursed and gesticulated at in Italiano. Forget to salt your pasta water? Inexcusable. Too much sauce? You may as well have doused it in gelato by the look of horror you will receive. And Santa Maria forbid you use the wrong shape of pasta. Everyone knows that pasta alla carbonara gets bucatini while pasta in brodo needs, nay, demands orecchiette. Open any Italian’s cupboard and you will find at the very least a dozen different blue boxes containing varying shapes and sizes of pasta; not just because they eat a lot of it, they will tell you matter-of-factly, but because it is essential to have a variety of shapes at the ready at all times. Since an Italian will never reheat pasta the next day, every Italian owns a little scale on which the pasta is weighed before cooking. Go out for chinese with a few Italians and they will each order two courses: a pasta dish and a meat dish. They will eat their pasta first, and the meat second. So while the Mafia may have invented ‘family business,’ Italians don’t do ‘family style;’ at least, not in Chinese.
This mac and cheese makes a perfect one dish meal, another thing that Italians don’t do, as it contains the four basic food groups: veggies, grains, dairy and bacon. I clipped the original recipe from an old Martha Stewart, in an article on lightening up traditionally rich dishes. It did not call for bacon, rather for nonfat milk and ricotta cheese. I did away with those immediately in favor of whole milk and aged cheddar, but appreciated the basic theory of the dish. The squash gets cooked and mashed into the milk, thickening into a sauce and eliminating the need to make a roux. I did reduce the amount of pasta called for, and add in some roasted chunks of squash, ribbons of collard greens, and caramelized onions. (You may think I did this for health reasons, but when I asked my dieting housemate, Luisa, why she didn’t add any veggies to her risotto bianco she frowningly replied, ‘troppo pesante,’ or ‘too heavy.’ The phrase was accompanied by a gesture similar to that used to connote the male reproductive center. So there you go.)And, because it makes everything better, crisp lardons of bacon. (How could you not love something called ‘lardons?’)
Baked Mac and Cheese
with Roasted Squash, Collard Greens, Bacon and Sage
Makes one 9x13x2″ casserole, 8ish main-course servings
1 medium winter squash, such as butternut, about 2 lbs, sliced lengthwise
6-8 strips of bacon, such as Niman Ranch cured applewood smoked
3 medium red onions (10 oz.), sliced thinly
1 cup breadcrumbs from 1-2 slices crusty boule
2 1/2 cups whole milk
8 oz. grated cheese, such as extra sharp white cheddar, gruyere or goat gouda
1 oz. grated parmesean
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage leaves
10 oz. penne
1 bunch collard greens, stems removed, leaves halved lengthwise and sliced into 1/2″ ribbons
Preheat the oven to 400º.
Place the squash halves cut side down on a lightly oiled sheet pan and roast until soft and collapsed in places, about 1 hour. Remove and let cool enough to handle. Scoop out and discard the strings and seeds, and remove the flesh from the skin. Set 1 cup of flesh aside, and chop the rest into approximately 1″ chunks. You should have about 2 cups.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350º.
Fry the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until browned and crispy, turning once or twice. Remove to a paper towel to drain, then slice into 1″ squares, or lardons.
Pour off all but a tablespoon or two of the rendered fat. Saute the onions over medium-low heat until golden, soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the pan with a metal spatula. Remove the onions to a large bowl and set aside.
Add another tablespoon of the fat to the pan, and fry the breadcrumbs, with a few pinches of salt, until crisp. Scrape out of the pan and set aside.
Place the 1 cup of squash in the skillet with the milk and simmer for a few minutes, then mash or puree smooth. Season with 3/4 teaspoon salt.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add the collards and cook until crisp-tender, a few minutes. Fish out with tongs or a slotted spoon or skimmer, cool enough to squeeze out excess moisture, and add to the the bowl with the onions. Dump in the penne and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Strain and toss with the onions and collards.
Add the squash chunks, milk mixture, cheeses, sage and bacon and toss to combine. Taste and add more salt or what have you if necessary.
Brush a 9x13x2″ casserole with some of the you-know-what fat. Spread the pasta in the pan and scatter the breadcrumbs evenly over.
Bake at 350º until bubbling and golden, about 30 minutes.