Today we have a nice treat in the second installment of the Recession Special: a super tasty restaurant recipe that is as affordable as it is easy to make. During a recent trip to Mia Dona (chef Michael Psilakis and restauranteaur Donatella Arpaia's place), one dish on the rustic Mediterranean menu sounded plain but just seemed to scream "winter". It was a simple pasta dish of orecchiette, kale, sausage, and white beans. There was no particular sauce, nothing gloppy or saucy to overpower the lovely pieces of the dish. Instead, it was all held together by the sum of it's parts: fresh ingredients working together in perfect balance. The sausage was spicy, but not overpowering, and the kale was cooked perfectly, providing a little toothy bite. The white beans were unexpected in pasta, but sweet and delicious, adding a lovely contrast to the heartiness of the kale and the heat from the sausage.
The trick to mastering this dish is taking advantage of an old restaurant trick that hasn't translated to every home cook quite yet: pasta water. Every chef-authored book or novel I've read so far has touted the many uses of pasta water in a restaurant kitchen. It quite literally becomes the glue that holds any noodle based dish together. The advantage in a restaurant is that the same water may be used over and over, infusing it with the wonderful starchy qualities that make it indispensable. It's also nice and salty, so seasoning is a cinch. The best explanation as to why we should never strain pasta and always remove it with tongs (for long noodles) or a slotted spoon or spider (for short pastas) that I've read is in Bill Buford's excellent book Heat. He explains the entire history of how we got into the habit of straining pasta and letting all that tasty, useful liquid go right down the drain. This is a very, very important trick for recreating any restaurant pasta dish. A truly great restaurant pasta dish is always light and fresh, even when it involves a cream or tomato sauce. Using the pasta water and the fat of your choice (olive oil, butter, etc...) to your advantage is the first and most important step towards making any restaurant quality pasta dish at home.
This recipe in particular is very accessible because the ingredients are fairly interchangeable to suit your needs. For example, you don't have to use kale if you can't find any or don't like it--any hearty green will do. I used rainbow swiss chard for added color in my dish, and just made sure to leave it a bit al dente to replicate that bite. As far as the sausage, the important thing is that it have a bit of spice. I used a spicy chicken and apple sausage, just to up the winter ante. A cheapy can of cannellini beans and your pasta of choice round out the dish, which shouldn't cost you more than 10-12 dollars total to feed 4. And since the dish is not sauce heavy, any noodle of your liking will do. Here's the basic recipe I came up with, so take it and make it your own!
Pasta with Spicy Sausage, Greens and White Beans
1 box dried pasta
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 large spicy sausages (removed from casing if fresh, sliced if fully cooked)
4 cups hearty greens (kale, swiss chard, mustard or collard greens)
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
extra virgin olive oil
1. Cook pasta according to package directions, reserving pasta water when done (about 2 cups).
2. Heat olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) in a very large non-stick skillet and add sausage. Cook until browned, then add cannellini beans and a pinch of salt, cooking about 2 minutes until heated through.
3. Add pasta to skillet, tossing to coat. Add 1/2 cup pasta water, butter, parmesan cheese and the greens (in batches) until just wilted. Toss to coat and season the entire dish with salt and pepper. Add more pasta water as necessary until the dish is moist but not runny. Top with parmesan cheese and enjoy!