One of the guilty pleasures that I have never, up to now, revealed to a living soul is my penchant for late-night pasta snacks. But not just any pasta, but pastina of the kind usually used for soups, cooked in just enough liquid (usually a mixture of water and milk) so that by the time the liquid has almost evaporated, the pasta if cooked and a creamy ‘sauce’ remains. I enrich the dish with a dab of butter and a spoonful of grated cheese just before pouring the concoction into a bowl and eating it greedily with a spoon.
I have always kept my love of this little mock baby-food to myself. After all, serious foodies do not indulge in such trifles, right? And, worse still, the method violates just about every traditional rule about the proper preparation of pasta. But then, not so long ago, while shopping for some new cookbooks in Rizzoli in New York, I stumbled across a book that a friend from Rome had heartily recommended to me, Cuochi si diventa by Milanese gastronome Allan Bay. As I leafed through the book, I found a chapter entitled “Mania dell’autore: la pasta a risotto” and, lo and behold, I found recipes for something very much like my late-night pastina…
Pasta a risotto (which is also sometimes called pasta risottata) means, loosely translated, pasta prepared in the manner of a risotto. And indeed, the method is very similar, if not identical. You begin with a soffritto of minced onion sweated in butter, then add whatever condimento you wish—this time I used swiss chard leaves finely cut into a chiffonade—and allow it to insaporire (absorb the flavor of the soffritto) for a few minutes. Then add your pasta—I used orzo, known in Italy as risoni—and just enough broth or water to cover the pasta. (NB: Unlike a risotto, there is no need to allow the pasta to ‘toast’ nor to add wine.) As for any risotto, you add successive ladlefuls of liquid as the prior ones evaporate, until the pasta is cooked al dente. Most but not all of the cooking liquid should have evaporated. Add grated cheese, mix well and serve immediately.
Bay says that this technique will work with any kind of pasta, but I plan to stick to various forms of pastina: tubetti, orzo, quadretti, broken up fidelini and so on. Orzo is perhaps the best choice, at least if you want to imitate the look and feel of a true risotto. After all, the pasta known as orzo in the US is also called risoni, or ‘big rice grains’. As for the liquid, as for risotto you can use any type of broth you like, or just water if the condimento is flavorful enough.
And as far as the condimento is concerned, as for risotto, the possibilities are practically endless. Bay proposes a cacio e pepe (see this post for the pasta recipe) which eliminates the initial soffritto altogether, and like the pasta, calls for abundant pecorino and freshly ground pepper at the very end. He also proposes zucca (Italian pumpkin, usually substituted by butternut squash in the US, although I prefer baby yams), potato and provola cheese, and mussels with cherry tomatoes. As for risotto, the ratio of condimento to rice can vary, according to your taste and the nature of the condimento, from 1:1 to 1:2.
Despite his Anglo-Saxon name, by the way, Allan Bay is 100% Milanese born and bred. He got his name from his English father. He writes a regular column on food for the Corriere della Sera, perhaps Italy’s most prestigious newspaper, and is a professor of cuisine at the University of Pavia. He is known as something of an iconoclast and, indeed, Cuochi si diventa is a rather quirky cookbook—definitely not for the traditionalist. Still and all, it is heartening to see my ‘secret’ technique for pasta endorsed by one of Italy’s great gastronomes!