It’s funny how some recipes or ingredients that have been around forever suddenly become trendy and therefore “new”. So it’s been lately with nduja, that deliciously spicy spreadable pork sausage from Calabria. Dating from the 1200s, a few years back it suddenly started popping up everywhere on the internet and restaurant menus. Now don’t get me wrong. Nduja is delightful and deserves all the love it’s been getting. But to read some of the more breathless pieces out there, you’d think the stuff had just been invented! It reminds me of the Italian expression “Hai scoperto l’America!“—meaning “You’ve discovered America!”—used sarcastically when someone expresses a super obvious or well known idea as if it were some fabulous revelation.
My own introduction to nduja came back in the 1990s, when we were living in Rome. One of our neighbors was calabrese, and he’d be sure to bring some back after a visit home. At the time, nduja was still very much a local Calabrian thing, so that even in Rome it was a novelty. We had it as an antipasto, spread over slices of crusty bread, and it was perfectly delicious.
I like nduja even better cooked as a sauce for pasta. The heat of the pan intensifies its taste, really bringing out its spiciness. In this recipe for pasta con nduja, the nduja melts into a light tomato sauce, infusing it with its spicy goodness. It’s super simple to make. If you can make a basic tomato sauce, then you can make this dish. It pairs especially well with fileja, a typical Calabrian pasta—more about that in the Notes below—but this versatile sauce lends itself to just about any pasta shape you can think of.
- 400 g (14 oz) fileja (or other pasta of your choice, see Notes below)
For the sauce:
- 1 small red onion, peeled and chopped
- 200 g (7 oz) nduja, broken into chunks
- 400 g (14 oz) small cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or passata or canned peeled tomatoes
- A few basil leaves, torn into pieces by hand if large
- Olive oil
To finish the dish (optional):
- Freshly grated caciocavallo (or pecorino romano)
Gently sauté the chopped onion in olive oil until soft and translucent.
Add the nduja and let it melt. Then add the tomatoes along with the basil and a good pinch of salt. Let simmer gently for 15 minutes or so, until the tomatoes have melted into a sauce, stirring from time to time.
While the sauce is simmering, bring well-salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente.
Drain the pasta (but not too well) and add it to the sauce. Mix well, still over very gentle heat.
Serve right away, with cheese for those who want it.
For the benefit of those who may have been living under a rock for the past few years, ndjuja is a spicy, spreadable pork sausage produced in Calabria and, more spcifically, the town of Spilinga. It’s said that the Angevins, a French dynasty who ruled southern Italy at the time, introduced it in the 13th century. The name is probably a corruption of the French word andouille. (Also a delicious but very different soft textured sausage.) Nduja is made using meat from the head and trimmings from various other parts of the pigs, skin and fat, and lots of roasted Calabrian chili peppers, which give nduja its characteristic fiery taste so typical of the region and act as a preservative. These ingredients are all minced together, then stuffed in large casings and smoked, creating a soft large sausage that looks like this:
With its current popularity nduja is not too hard to find nduja in the US. Or at least a simulacrum of it, since as far as I know, you can’t buy nduja from Calabria here. And I’ve only found one domestic source, Tempesta brand—recommended by Rosetta Costentino (my muse for all things Calabrian, by the way) as well as Serious Eats—that comes close to the real thing. I’ve never seen Tempesta brand nduja in stores where I live, but it is available online. It seems that demand exceeds supply since it’s often out of stock. Get it when and if you can! European readers, I’m guessing, can probably source it from Italy, lucky dogs. And for Spaniards, nduja is said to be similar to sobrassada, so that might make a good substitute.
If you want a truly authentic Calabrian experience, search out fileja, a regional pasta made by twirling strips of dough around a metal rod. This video from the Pasta Grannies YouTube channel shows you how you make it. Fileja belongs to a family of mostly southern Italian pastas using a similar twirling technique often referred to as maccheroni col ferro, loosely meaning pasta made with a metal rod. They include strozzapreti, fusilli pugliesi and Sicilian busiate. So if you can’t find fileja near you—and for once you won’t find it on Amazon—feel free to substitute any pasta in that family. And if you can’t find any of those, among easy to find pasta shapes perhaps penne comes closest, but, truth be told, this versatile sauce pairs well with just about any pasta shape you fancy. I’d avoid delicate egg pastas, however.
The onion should be red if possible. Like the Tuscans, Calabrians prefer red onions to the yellow or white ones, and in particular their prized cipolle di Tropea. But of course, in a pinch yellow onions will do.
The recipe has a mind boggling number of variations. To start with, how much nduja you want to add is really up to you. Recipe range from calling for a whole lot—almost 1:1 ratio of nduja to pasta by weight—to just a spoonful or two, just enough to scent the tomato sauce. So just go by your own taste for spicy foods. (And your pocket book, since nduja doesn’t come cheap.) Personally, I like a generous amount of nduja, as given here a 1:2 ratio, which I find really brings out it unique flavor but remains balanced.
Recipes are also all over the map when it comes to when to add the nduja. Personally I prefer to add the nduja right after the onion. That brief sauté renders its fat and intensifies its flavor so it infuses beautifully into the sauce. But some recipes warn you off this, saying it risks burning the nduja. They recommend adding it to the almost cooked tomato sauce and letting everything simmer together for another 5 minutes or so, enough time for the nduja to melt completely and the flavors to meld. And in that Pasta Grannies video, the nonna split the difference, sautéing the nduja separately to intensify its taste, then adding it to simmer along with the sauce. And in yet another recipe I’ve seen, some of the nduja is adding during cooking, while a bit is held back for adding at the very end, just before the pasta.
Recipes also vary on what kind and how much tomato to use. In some recipes, you are basically making a standard tomato sauce to which you add a bit of nduja for flavor. At the other end of the spectrum, you can add just a few cherry tomatoes to wilt into sautéed nduja. And there’s all degrees of variations in between. In the summer, fresh tomatoes are de rigueur. In the other months, hydroponic cherry tomatoes, passata or canned tomatoes do the job. Some recipes combine fresh cherry tomatoes with passata or canned. So again, follow your bliss.
Pasta con nduja
- 400g 14 oz fileja or other pasta of your choice
For the sauce:
- 1 small red onion peeled and choped
- 200g 7 oz nduja broken into chunks
- 400g 14 oz small cherry tomatoes cut in half, or passata or canned peeled tomatoes
- A few basil leaves torn into pieces by hand if large
- Olive oil
To finish the dish:
- freshly grated caciocavallo or pecorino romano
- Gently sauté the chopped onion in olive oil until soft and translucent.
- Add the nduja and let it melt. Then add the tomatoes along with the basil and a good pinch of salt. Let simmer gently for 15 minutes or so, until the tomatoes have melted into a sauce, stirring from time to time.
- While the sauce is simmering, bring well-salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente.
- Drain the pasta (but not too well) and add it to the sauce. Mix well, still over very gentle heat.
- Serve right away, with cheese for those who want it.