Pairing pasta and vegetables is common throughout Italy, but it is probably fair to say that no region puts so much emphasis on this classic combination as Campania, the southern Italian region from which Angelina hailed. Campanians are so associated with their love of vegetables that they used to jokingly be called mangiafoglie, or ‘leaf eaters’.
Typically, the vegetable is sautéed in a soffritto—in Campania almost always it’s garlic and oil and perhaps a bit of hot red pepper—and allowed to insaporire, or take on the savoriness of the soffritto. Cooked pasta is the added to the skillet where the vegetable has been prepared, and the pasta and vegetable are simmered together to get acquainted for just a minute or two before serving.
Last week we featured a pasta and vegetable dish from Puglia, orecchiette with broccoli rabe. This week we will take a look at a classic Neapolitan dish using zucca, or Italian pumpkin, which is now at the height of its season. In Campania, they use a local squash called cocozza, which looks rather like a butternut squash with variegated green skin. Rather than cooking the pasta separately, water is added to the sautéed squash to make a kind of broth in which the pasta cooks and absorbs the flavor and color of the vegetable. The dish can be served rather loose, as a kind of thick soup, or dry, as a true pastasciutta, according to your taste.
Serves 4-6 people
- 400g (14 oz) of pasta (see Notes)
- 800g (28 oz) of winter squash, peeled, seeded and diced (see Notes)
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed and peeled
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- A peperoncino or a pinch of red pepper flakes
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)
- Freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese (optional)
In a large saucepan or braiser, sauté the garlic in olive oil, along with the peperoncino (if using), until the garlic has just browned. Remove the garlic (and peperoncino) and add the squash. Season with salt and pepper and mix everything well. Lower the heat as far as it will go, cover the pan, and allow the squash to braise gently until it is quite soft and beginning to ‘melt’ into a kind of cream. Add a few drops of water if things get too dry; the squash should not brown. (NB: If using red pepper flakes instead of the peperoncino, add a pinch at the end of this step.)
Add enough water to the pan to cover the squash by at least a good 3 cm/1 inch. Bring to a brisk boil and add the pasta. Mix and let the pasta simmer until it is cooked al dente and has absorbed most of the water. (Add more water if the dish dries out before the pasta is cooked.) You can serve the dish rather soupy or wait until the water is almost completely absorbed. If you like, mix in some finely chopped parsley just a few minutes before serving.
Serve immediately, topped with grated cheese or not, as you prefer.
This dish is sometimes made with odd pieces of pasta mixed together, but you can also use most any kind of short pasta, like gemelli or small shells, or—most classic of all—a small ‘soup’ pasta like tubetti. In the US, good old elbow macaroni work well as a substitute for these sometimes hard to find pasta shapes. You can also use pasta spezzata, or ‘broken pasta': spaghetti or linguine broken into short lengths. The dish is generally eaten with a spoon, like a soup.
A note for readers in the US: As I’ve written about before, regular pumpkin is not a very satisfactory substitute for zucca. Although they look alike, the zucca has an intense flavor that is key to the success of this dish. Personally, I don’t find butternut squash, which most recipes here call for as a zucca substitute, very satisfactory, either. For risottos, I usually try to find baby yams, believe it or not, but today I tried the kabocha, an Asian winter squash with a reputation for having plenty of flavor, and found it worked rather well. Feel free to experiment; the markets are full of different varieties at the moment; one expat Italian reader recently says his zucca substitute is buttercup squash. If you are opting for pumpkin or butternut squash, you might want to use broth rather than water in which to cook the pasta to make up for the flavor deficit, even if it’s not traditional to do so, and top the dish with ample amounts of grated cheese, to make up for the loss of flavor.
There are more ‘refined’ versions of this dish as well, where the soffritto includes onion and pancetta, and is sautéed in butter, which brings out the sweetness of the squash. The squash is the sometimes puréed as well. But being true to my roots, I prefer this simple, rustic Neapolitan version.
Rather than cooking the pasta in the same pan as the squash, you can also cook it in the usual way, that is, separately in boiling water, adding it, along with a good ladleful of its cooking water, to the pan with the squash to finish off. But I prefer the method given above. As mentioned, it adds flavor, and besides, there’s one less pot to clean afterwards…