And it burns, burns, burns…
Right around this time of year, every year, I feel an overwhelming desire to cook food that’s laced with chilli peppers – or peperoncino as they are known across Italy. To eat fiery chilli is strangely soothing, like hearing the penetrating baritones of Johnny Cash, it provides a special kind of deep comfort that warms your insides and acts as a powerful antidote to that nasty winter chill. After all the chilli pepper is a painkiller of sorts and has long been recognised for its medicinal benefits. According to Calabrese chef Francesco Mazzei, a chilli’s spiciness depends on the amount of capsaicin held in the seeds (generally the smaller the chilli, the hotter) and these seeds are also what makes chilli peppers slightly addictive. So needless to say that with my wretched chronic pain condition, I constantly self-medicate with many moreish hits of chilli. Interestingly enough, in his Italian travelogue ‘Eating up Italy’ Matthew Fort mentions that for a long time in southern Italy the peperoncino (chilli pepper) was known as ‘la droga dei poveri’ – the poor man’s drug.
Italy has three regions which are traditionally home to the passionate chilli-chompers – Calabria, Abruzzo and Basilicata (Mazzei suggests that the Lucani of Basilicata have a particular predilection to eat the milder sweet variety). These southern regions are blessed with the ideal climate to grow peperoncini and, after their arrival in the 16th century, these chilli peppers became integral to home-cooking in these areas. Calabria, the ‘toe’ region of Italy, is particularly renowned for its vast range of bold and spicy flavoured salumi (cured pork foods). My wild heart especially craves the famous Calabrese ‘nduja sausage spread, which has a creamy texture and uniquely complex chilli flavour. It is said this curiously catchy name, ‘nduja, derives from the name of the French sausage ‘andouillette’, which makes sense when you consider that much of southern Italy was part of France’s territory.
Unfortunately the first time I tried to request this fiery pork paste in a London deli, my request was met with the proprietor’s perplexed expression of non-recognition. Clearly my pronunciation was some way off. So, if you say something like ‘En-doo-ya’, and point enthusiastically, you shouldn’t be met with similar bewildered faces. ‘En-doo-ya’ is made with pork fat and meat, taken from the loin or head, which is then infused with roasted hot chilli pepper – but please don’t let that put you off. After all, how could it possibly, when ‘nduja is such a tasty ingredient that’s happy to be employed in so many different ways. It’s usually spread on bread, crackers and raw vegetables and it can be warmed up and combined into sauces for pasta, meat and even shellfish. So if you’ve never tried ‘nduja before, I confidently predict that it will quickly become one of your faithful household staples.
In this recipe I have, true to form, plumped for pasta to show off my lovely ‘nduja. I find these sturdy ruote wheels (I use Garofalo) to be especially good for combining with ‘nduja. The ‘nduja sauce turns the little ruote into spicy rings of fire that will fill up your mouth with intense flavour. Warning: if you try this you’ll begin craving chilli like me, and maybe you’ll start to see these ruote rings burning in your mind all the time, like Frodo Baggins.
Before you begin: I often make many different variations of this, usually for lunch, because it is provides a speedy, rich and reliable meal for one. Here though, I’ve adjusted the recipe so that four people can all dig into their own bowl of fiery pasta together.
Ruote con la ‘nduja
Serves 4 as a main course
- 380g of ruote pasta (or another robust short pasta shape such as rigatoni or cavatelli)
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 regular onion, finely chopped
- 80g of ‘nduja paste (or slightly less if you’d prefer it less spicy)
- 50ml dry white wine
- ¾ tin of cherry tomatoes (300g)
- large handful of baby rocket leaves
- 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, plus more to finish.
- small blob of fresh ricotta or mascarpone
- plenty of strong pecorino (or ricotta salata)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pan of water to a rapid boil and stir in plenty of salt (around 7 -10g per litre).
In your sauté pan add the olive oil and fennel seeds – fry for two minutes. Then, add the onion with a pinch of salt and cook it gently until softened, around 8 minutes. Add the ‘nduja, break it in with a wooden spoon, and fry for two minutes more. Now add the splash of white wine and let it evaporate.
Next, add the pasta to the well-salted boiling water and time the cooking carefully, by following the instructions on the packet and checking the pasta a minute less than the packet says for al dente.
Pour in the tinned cherry tomatoes into the sauté pan – let it bubble up and simmer. Adjust the pan to a medium heat and now with the back of your wooden spoon squash all the tomatoes down so that they burst their juices open. Take care not to redecorate your kitchen red with tomato. Cook the ingredients at a lively simmer for 10 minutes or so. If the sauce starts to get too dry, just add a few spoonfuls of starchy pasta water.
When the sauce has thickened up and looks suitably scarlet, stir in the ricotta thoroughly and fold in most of the rocket so that it wilts down. Finally, add the drained pasta to the sauce. Alternatively, if the pan is too small to hold the pasta tip the sauce into a big warmed mixing bowl and carefully tip the pasta on top. Scatter in a small handful of pecorino, and if you think it’s necessary, add a little pasta water to coat the pasta completely with the sauce. Stir again thoroughly and check for seasoning.
Divide the pasta into four warm bowls. Pile some rocket leaves on top of each portion, dust well with freshly grated pecorino, and finish with a dribbling of your favourite extra-virgin olive oil. Wipe away the inevitable sloshes of redness from the edges of the bowls, and then serve with thirst-quenching drinks close at hand – you could do worse than serving a full-bodied Calabrese Cirò – molto elegante!