This recipe has been a while in coming, and with yesterday’s yearned-for rain making it feel like fall, at least for a few hours, I thought it was time to share it.
One thing I have yet to fine tune is how to size down my food shopping when I am cooking for the blog, or even for myself. I still have the tendency to purchase in bulk, a habit retained from my restaurant days that I am finding hard to relinquish.
Well, you know, the red chard looked so good, why buy just one bundle when I could get two. And those cute little potatoes… the bag they come in is not that big!
This was just a few days ago. A few months ago, when, after scouring all the specialty food stores in the area without success, I finally found the closest thing to pizzoccheri made in Italy online at, where else, Amazon. Since I had spent so long looking for them, I thought: why order just one bag? Two would be better. So I did. Except when the box arrived I found that by “bag” the supplier meant a bag of four packages, so I have enough pizzoccheri till kingdom come, which is why I did not even consider making the pasta from scratch.
Pizzoccheri is a regional dish from Valtellina, in the Lombardia Alps, Northern Italy. They are part of so called cucina povera – literally: poor man’s food. This usually means tasty food made with simple and inexpensive ingredients easily available in the area. The pasta itself is made with four parts buckwheat flour and one part wheat flour + water. Traditionally, the pasta is not cut into tagliatelle style noodles (like the image above), but into wider bands the length of a small finger. Once cooked, pizzoccheri are dressed with boiled potatoes, cabbage or Swiss chard, abundant brown butter with garlic, and one of two typical cheeses of the area, one called Casera, the other Bitto, as well as some grated Parmigiano.
I have so far been unable to find either Casera or Bitto here in the U.S., so I have been substituting it with another cheese from the Italian Alps that is imported more regularly: Fontina della Val d’Aosta, or simply Fontina. I chose red chard because it looked good and would add a touch of extra color without affecting the taste, and those little potatoes because they looked good, too, would taste good and would cook in less time. I also chose to not peel them, which is very American style, as in Italy we always peel our potatoes.
And because when I eat them at my favorite Valtellinese restaurant in Italy I can also taste some onion, I added a little of that, though it is not in the original ingredients.
PIZZOCCHERI DELLA VALTELLINA
yields ca 6 portions (5 if you are ravenous)
- 350 gr. (12.3 oz.) pizzoccheri pasta
- 250 gr. (8.8 oz.) freshly grated Valtellina Casera cheese, or Fontina
- 150 gr. (5.3 oz.) freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 500 gr. (ca 17 oz.) new potatoes
- 500 gr. (ca 17. oz.) Swiss chard
- 200 gr. (ca 7. oz.) butter (unsalted)
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half, core removed
- 1/2 medium onion, finely sliced
- extra-virgin olive oil
- coarse sea salt
- fine sea salt
- freshly cracked black pepper
The original recipe asks to boil the potatoes, Swiss chard and pizzoccheri pasta in the same pot, adding first whatever takes longer to cook (the pasta). Because I am not one for sloppy, boiled greens, I do it differently. I sauté the Swiss chard separately with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a couple of those garlic cloves. Up to you what you prefer to do: traditional or my way.
About the potatoes: I selected these small ones and boiled them whole separately, then cut them in half. Depending what size potatoes you use, cut them down to bite size pieces before or after boiling, and obviously before if you will choose to cook them with the pasta.
Step 1 – Prep the Swiss chard by slicing down the center rib and then cutting cross wise to get smaller pieces. If you want to do like me, add a couple of tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and a couple of garlic cloves to a large sauté pan and heat on medium heat. Add the chard, season lightly with salt and pepper and cook, covered, till tender but still vibrant. Set aside.
Step 2 – Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a couple of handfuls of coarse sea salt, just like you would for cooking all other pasta. Cook the potatoes and pizzoccheri till tender but still both al dente. Pizzoccheri take about 10 minutes or more to cook, depending on the thickness.
Step 3. In the meantime, brown the butter in a sauce pan with the rest of the garlic and the finely sliced onion. Place a baking dish to warm in the oven or toaster oven.
Step 4. When cooked, strain the pizzoccheri and potatoes. If you are using the shorter pizzoccheri pieces, then you can do the straining with a spider strainer or slotted spoon, otherwise it is best to just pour the whole thing into a large pasta strainer set in the sink and just drain the water away all at once, which is what I had to do.
Place some pizzoccheri and potatoes in the warm baking dish, sprinkle with the grated cheeses and the Swiss chard, then do another layer of pizzoccheri and potatoes, sprinkle with the cheeses and chard and continue alternating this way.
Pour the hot brown butter all over the pizzoccheri and serve. No stirring necessary.
However, because this dish is also excellent prepared and then stored for later or the next day, if that is what you are planning to do, it is better to do things slightly different.
- Strain the pizzoccheri and potatoes into a pasta strainer, getting rid of all the water. Place it back into the hot and now empty pot, add the Swiss chard, the fried butter and stir.
- Now start layering it in a buttered baking dish, alternating with the grated cheeses. Let cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator till ready to use.
- When ready: remove the plastic wrap, dot with a little butter and place in the oven at 380ºF/190ºC for about 20-30 minutes, until hot and bubbly and nicely crisped on top.
This is also what you would do with leftovers, minus the butter dots.
Pizzoccheri is one of my favorite dishes, and I hope you will enjoy it and get comforted on a cold winter evening. And if you happen to be in Valtellina, Italy, you can always go and taste the original version there. If you are around my home town of Varese – lots of beautiful lakes around there, btw – you can always stop in at Crotto Valtellina Restaurant and enjoy some of the best I have ever tasted.
Here in the Bay Area, the only place where you can taste real Pizzoccheri is at the one and only Valenti & Co Restaurant in San Anselmo. Chef Duilio Valenti is from Valtellina, so you know you are going to get the real thing. Besides, he is the only one who has managed to get hold of the original cheeses!
Ok, now I am hungry. How about you? Which is your go-to comfort food?
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This recipe was originally published on March 14th, 2014 in my Food Journey blog, which is now integrated into this one.