One of my best food memories is of a meal I had in Puglia. It was at a winery and we had a simple lunch that began with focaccia studded with tomatoes, the winery’s olive oil, olives and the wonderful Puglian burrata cheese that oozes cream as soon as you cut into it. This was followed by pasta with tomatoes and shrimp. Because tomatoes were just out of season they were flash cooked so their flavour intensified. The shrimp were fresh out of the water. We ended the meal with taralli, a type of Italian bread stick, and bitter black coffee. It was magic.
Because I am able to purchase farm-raised fresh Ontario shrimp, that pasta gave me the idea for this recipe. I never realized that shrimp could be raised in vats and really anywhere – if you can provide the right conditions. These Ontario shrimp were firm, juicy and had lots of flavour, plus all the perks of being local.
It is important to cook pasta al dente. Not only does it taste better, but it might actually be healthier for you. Some sources claim that it has a lower glycemic index than overcooked pasta. We tried this with both long and short pasta and found that long pasta pulled the ingredients together better, but you can use short if that’s what you have on hand.
You can use Swiss chard, kale, rapini or dandelion greens in this dish. We used a mixture. Breadcrumbs are used often in pasta dishes when there is a seafood ingredient to give added texture, because cheese is not traditionally used with seafood.
This is adapted from Massimo Bottura’s 2014 cookbook Never Trust a Skinny Italian Chef, published by Phaidon. The recipe is a nod to American Caesar salad. Colatura di alici is a fermented anchovy sauce that is delightful. If you can’t find it, substitute fish sauce.
Massimo Bottura is a three-star Michelin chef with a mission. When a powerful earthquake hit his native Modena, Italy in 2012 and toppled countless wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano which broke and split, he developed this risotto recipe to make use of the shattered blocks of cheese. A lively intellectual and storyteller who creates a vision for each plate, Bottura, 52, was recently in Toronto as a guest of the George Brown College cooking school, which is pioneering an Italian program in Italy.
Bottura demonstrated this risotto in his class at George Brown College. (It is a traditional Roman dish when made with pasta.) Use vialone nano or carnaroli rice.
This sauté highlights some of the earliest spring vegetables, which you can interchange as they become available; try asparagus, early mushrooms like morels or spring greens. If you feel like adding a salty crunch, sauté 1/3 cup pancetta in with the garlic mixture.
Pasta shapes matter: Orecchiette are cup-shaped and act as receptacles for the nutty-tasting fiddleheads, while asparagus cut in 2-inch lengths are the right size for penne.
The tightly coiled fiddleheads must be washed well. Before washing, place them in a paper bag and shake well until all the brown skin comes off. Cut off any brown tips and the tough brown part at the base of the fern so they are completely round. Before using, rinse the fiddleheads in about three changes of water to remove any more brown skin and dirt. For a quick dish, roast the fiddleheads for 5 minutes longer than in this recipe, then eat like french fries.
Ricotta salata is a slightly salty, dry version of ricotta. If unavailable, use the more easily accessible Italian Grana Padano.
When I was in New York recently, on a local friend’s advice, I made a beeline to Fung Tu, Jonathan Wu’s wildly creative and idiosyncratic restaurant on the border of the Lower East Side and Chinatown. An alumnus of Per Se, Wu is putting his stamp on American-Chinese cuisine, recreating and modernizing the traditional dishes he remembers from his grandparents’ kitchen and using innovative concepts to elevate familiar dishes. He takes things one step further with an outstanding wine, beer and cocktail list crafted to fit his menu.
Balsamic vinegar is a good alternative to black rice vinegar.
Baked pasta is my idea of real comfort food. It’s easy to cook and can be prepared well ahead of time, making it a go-to dish for families (especially since it also freezes well). Served with a good salad, it becomes soul-satisfying. This recipe is a good basis for adding other vegetables that you like: broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, kale or anything else in your vegetable drawer. If you like smoky flavours, smoked provolone cheese lends a more complex taste than provolone.