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Pasta, with a Handful of Herbs

Author: | posted 03/17/11 | Print This Post Print This Post |

“…with a handful of herbs.” I love that. Even if the dish weren’t so simple and delicious, even if it didn’t leave my wife starry-eyed with carbohydrate lust, I’d cook this pasta just to call it by name; that, and the devil-may-care pleasure of a recipe defined, not by cups or teaspoons, but by the size of one’s hand. Want the recipe? Here it is: Grab a handful of whatever herbs happen to be growing in the garden, toast two handfuls of breadcrumbs, and sweat a handful shallots and garlic:

Now choose a nice pasta – I particularly like the way penne and orecchiete cup the sauce – and cook til just al dente, toss the lot of it together, and serve it with some freshly grated cheese; parmigiano would be unimpeachable, although I might suggest a good pecorino instead, for its salty barnyard tang, and how that stands up to the pungency of raw herbs and the richness of buttery breadcrumbs and shallots. And that is it.

The size of your hand, the mixture of herbs, the type of bread, and the shape of the pasta will all influence the final product, but the beauty of this recipe is that it will almost always be good – I’ve tried to screw it up, and it’s not easy. The main thing is to strike a balance between sweeter herbs like tarragon and basil, stronger, more peppery herbs like rosemary or thyme, and the gentle bite of a green onion or chive. If at all possible, make your own breadcrumbs from a good, crusty sourdough, although I’ve used panko from a box with unqualified success. Ultimately, there are lots of ways to get it right, and very few not to.

The chef who taught me this particular version describes it as classic Italian peasant food, although I’ve never seen it on a menu or in a cookbook; probably, it’s a regional or even family-specific riff on pasta al grantatto, a fairly generic catch-all for “noodles with breadcrumbs”, and Italian Kryptonite for Atkins dieters. But whereas most al grantatto recipes include some form of seafood, this one depends mainly on the aromatics of fresh herbs, and varies naturally with the seasons, which seems especially nice.

Pasta with a Handful of Garden Herbs & Breadcrumbs (adapted from G. Sarnataro)
1 lb/500g best quality dry pasta, ideally penne rigate
1 large handful of mixed fresh herbs (lots of basil or parsley; some chives or green onions; and thyme, tarragon, or rosemary, more sparingly), chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, finely sliced (optional)
1 palm’s worth of finely chopped shallots (about 4 large or 6 smaller ones; or a medium onion, if shallots are unavailable)
2 large handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs, pulsed in a food processor (about 2 cups; substitute panko if necessary)
Butter, olive oil, salt, and pepper – as needed
Hard cheese, grated, for serving
  1. Sautee the shallots and garlic in olive oil until soft and sweetly fragrant; remove from pan and reserve.
  2. Melt a knob of butter in the same pan and gently toast the breadcrumbs until golden brown and lightly crunchy; remove from pan and reserve.
  3. After they’ve cooled (you don’t want to cook the herbs), combine the breadcrumbs, shallot mixture, and herbs in a bowl, toss with olive oil and season relatively aggressively with salt and a little pepper.
  4. Boil a large pot of salted water, cook the pasta until just al dente, and drain in a colander. Toss the pasta with the herb mixture, check the seasoning, and serve with a grated hard cheese.
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2 Responses

  1. Francesco March 17, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    Never tried before the mix breadcrumbs and grated hard cheese. I have always thought that breadcrumbs and grated cheese did not get on well together and now am very curious to try it, and as you wrote, it is very difficult to screw it up.

    • Proximal.Kitchen March 17, 2011 at 11:50 am #

      @Francesco – you raise a really good point, and one I should have emphasized. It is _not_ typical in Italian cuisine to mix breadcrumbs w/ grated cheese. However, I’ve found that if you (a) pulse the breadcrumbs relatively finely before toasting them (or use panko-style Japanese breadcrumbes – as counterintuitive as that may sound, panko makes a fantastic crumb topping for baked pastas); (b) let them cool completely (else they melt the cheese into a congealed mess); and finally (c) toss them with very finely grated hard cheese, they make a terrific topping.
      But you’re correct, the classic approach, and what my chef/instructor would have said, would not include the cheese.

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