Saturday, February 11, 2006

Fettuccini with carrots and mushrooms

Whenever I walk into a supermarket and find Italian ingredients in the "Ethnic" or "International Foods" section, it gives me a turn. I grew up in northern New Jersey and in that setting, Italian food isn't anything foreign (not like French or Mexican or Japanese food). Italian food is just normal food. Spaghetti, pizza, fettuccini, lasagna, bologna, salami, get the idea. Now, growing up as I did in a non-Italian family, I doubt our spaghetti was particularly authentic, but long before I got interested in cooking, I already had a lot of Italian words in my lexicon. To me, it will always be part of the normal culinary scene.

To make a long story short, I got to talking cookbooks with my mom around Christmas, and she recommended Anne Casale's Italian Family Cooking as a good basic Italian cookbook. It even has a recipe that is very close to an eggplant dish that one of our neighbors used to make; this neighbor came from a Sicilian background and shared some of her recipes with my mother, who still has them. For my first try at cooking from a dedicated Italian cookbook, I didn't tackle eggplant (never one of my favorite veggies) but made a pasta recipe for spinach fettuccini topped with carrots, mushrooms and pancetta.

The carrots are julienned and boiled until barely tender; the less said about my julienning ability, the better, so I just sliced them. One heats three tablespoons of olive oil in a pan over medium heat and adds three tablespoons of butter. Then one adds in succession: diced pancetta, sliced scallions, and the carrots, cooking each until tender, between one to two minutes apiece. Then one adds sliced mushrooms (I used regular button mushrooms) and turns up the heat to medium-high to cook for about a minute (until the mushrooms start giving up their juices). Season with salt and pepper to taste, remove from the heat, and stir in some minced parsley (I omitted the parsley). Serve over the spinach fettuccini.

This is a fairly simple dish in execution and taste. The centers of attention are the pasta and the vegetables; the butter and pancetta are there to provide flavor accents only, not to dominate the dish and turn it into something luxurious. I'm sure it could be adapted for any assortment of seasonal produce, or one could omit the pancetta and turn it into a vegetarian pasta (maybe as easily as substituting reconstituted dried porcini for the pancetta). I have to say the result didn't make me jump up and down in excitement, but it was a perfectly respectable solid dinner. It's so easy to throw a canned sauce over pasta, but it's almost as easy (and likely healthier) just to cook up a few toppings and turn them into a light sauce like this.

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