~ Conchiglie Pasta tossed with Crispy Pancetta, a Creamy Gorgonzola Sauce, Spinach & Walnuts ~
Damn straight. The year was 1986. Joe's engineering company was doing business with a manufacturing company in Taiwan. It was owned by an interesting American businessman who, having being stationed in Taipei after the Korean War, decided to return to Taiwan to live for the rest of his life. Thanks to Lee's English-speaking Taiwanese secretary, while the men were conducting business, I spent ten days being chauffered around to sight-see, eat and shop. On the last day of our stay, Lee, who knew that Joe and I were both tennis players, took us to The American Club, of which he was a member. I suppose I missed eating Italian-American fare more than I thought because I ordered the only pasta dish on the menu for lunch: a simple dish of penne tossed with Gorgonzola sauce and topped with walnuts. It rocked!
As per their website: "The American Club is the best that Taipei has to offer to the international community -- camraderie, sports, fine dining and relaxation -- all together in one unique place. A home away from home and safe haven for international travelers."
It just so happened that Andre Agassi and a few other players from the ATP tour were there too. Ok -- let's move on to the pasta recipe!
The dish I ate at The American Club was lusciously simple: pasta tossed with creamy Gorgonzola sauce and topped with toasted walnuts. It was served with a spinach and pear salad that also contained crumbles of Gorgonzola and walnuts dressed with a lemony pear vinaigrette. The following is my version, made the way I like it -- it evolved over time.
A bit about gorgonzola cheese (gohr-gan-DZOH-lah): Named for a town outside of Milan, Gorgonzola is one of the world's oldest, blue-veined cheeses. Made primarily in the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of Italy, this unskimmed cow's milk cheese has a crumbly yet soft texture and a nutty aroma. It is usually aged for 2-6 months, and its slightly sharp taste gets sharper with age (after 6 months it's strong).
My favorite is Gorganzola dolce (sometimes referred to as Sweet Gorganzola). It is rich, creamy, mildly-sharp, slightly sweet, and, a bit salty. A delightful combination. Note: All blue cheese is not created equal, so, if you must substitute please exercise some caution!
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teapoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Note: You'll have 2 cups of sauce. Reheat gently on stovetop or in microwave, adding cream, only if necessary, to thin to desired consistency.
Part Two. Preparing and Saucing this Pasta Dish
"Conchiglia" means "sea shell" in Italian, so, technically, the shell-shaped pasta I am using today are conchiglie, except, they are not the conch-shaped shells most of us relate with pasta shells. Feel free to subsitute 1 pound of medium or large shells (not small or jumbo shells) in this recipe.
Splitting hairs. The correct name for the pasta I'm using is lumaconi. "Lumaca" is the Italian word for "snail", and, these are indeed snail-shaped shells. They are hollow on the inside with a large opening on one end which closes into a small opening at the other. Lumaconi (or the ones I'm familiar with), like jumbo shells, are very large and meant for stuffing with meat or cheese and baked. These are not, which is why the manufacturer simply used the word "seashells" in their product description.
1 cup coarsely-chopped and lightly-toasted walnuts (3/4 cup for sauce/1/4 cup for garnish)
1/2 pound thick-sliced pancetta, have the person at the deli-counter thick slice it for you
1/2-3/4 cup finely-diced yellow or sweet onion
6 ounces baby spinach leaves
1 pound conchiglie pasta
1 tablespoon sea salt for seasoning pasta water
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese, for topping pasta
1/4 cup additional toasted walnuts, from above, for garnishing pasta
~ Step 1. Prepare the Gorgonzola sauce as directed, cover and set aside. Coarsely chop the walnuts. Place them on a small baking pan and roast on center rack of preheated 375 degree oven until lightly-browned and fragrant, stopping to toss with a spoon every 2-3 minutes, for 6-8 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
~ Step 2. Slice or dice the pancetta. I cut mine into 1/4" chards because that is what I was taught. When sliced like this, the pancetta will be crispy on the outside with a slightly-chewy center. If you want your pancetta chrisp, dice it. FInely-dice the onion and press the garlic as directed.
~ Step 3. Place pancetta in a 5 1/2-quart chef's pan. Saute over medium-high heat, until pancetta is golden on the outside and to-the-tooth on the inside, 7-8 minutes. After 5 minutes, move pancetta to one side of the pan. Add onions and garlic to the other. Continue to saute, until onion is soft and pancetta is cooked as directed. Remove pan from heat, partially cover and set aside.
~ Step 4. In an 8-quart stockpot being 5 quarts of water to a boil and add the salt. Add the pasta and continue to cook until the pasta is slightly less than al dente, according to the package directions (my conchiglie requires 8 minutes). Test for doneness often during the last 2 minutes of cooking process. Drain but do not rinse. While the water is coming to a boil and the pasta is simmering:
~Steps 5 & 6. Return pancetta mixture to stovetop over medium-high heat. Add 3/4 cup of the walnuts and the spinach, and using two spoons, toss like you would a salad until the spinach is wilted, about 1-2 minutes. Toss the still warm and drained pasta to the mixture.
~ Step 7. Add all of the warmed Gorgonzola sauce. Using two spoons toss as you would a salad until all ingredients are evenly coated. Put the lid on the pan and let the mixture rest for 1-2 minutes, too allow the pasta time to absorb some of the sauce.
Portion into warmed serving bowls. Sprinkle each portion with a few Gorgonzola crumbles, walnuts and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes.
Simply, scrumptiously irresistable:
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 1-quart saucepan w/lid; spoon or small whisk; large spoon; 8" x 8" baking pan or 9" pie dish (for toasting walnuts); garlic press; 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight-deep sides & lid; large spoon; 8-quart stockpot; colander
Cook's Note: To turn this decadent pasta dish into a side-dish for an exquisite meal, may I suggest my recipe for ~ Steak au Poivre (Peppercorn Crusted Filet Mignon) ~, found in Categories 3, 21, or 26
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)