A month or so ago, my friend Ali had a few of us over to her new apartment on the Lower East Side. She made a beautiful Italian meal of rigatoni with a sausage cream sauce, and after downing two large bowls and thwarting any desire I once had to go out drinking, I realized I had to make this pasta.
The next week, I emailed Ali for the recipe and for the story behind it. The dish was passed down from Ali's mother, who, after marrying an Italian man, had become quite well versed in the ways of perfect pasta. Though I've never had the pleasure of partaking in her cooking, when I visited Ali's house on Long Island last summer, I spent the better part of my weekend poring through her mother's collection of Gourmet and Food & Wine magazines, lining the walls floor to ceiling, and dating back to 1972. It didn't surprise me that this woman had given birth to both my new favorite pasta dish and the friend who made it for me.
When I went over the ingredient list, I was surprised to see radicchio was the other main component of the mixture (the first was sausage). Its usually bitter flavor had melted into the sauce, and the leaves had become unrecognizable after the simmering. Ali's notes specified to get the long radicchio versus the round version. I paused for a second and racked my brain. I just couldn't picture this vegetable.
With my head bent low (if there had been anyone watching), I went on Wikipedia to look up the varieties of radicchio. Sure enough, the long version, resembling a purple leafy endive, came on the screen. Radicchio Treviso as it turned out is most commonly found in Italian cooking, and is a little harder to find in American supermarkets, though I did eventually find it. Perhaps I had happened upon this vegetable at the markets in Rome, where Ali and I studied abroad together. Chances are, as my ignorance would reflect, I was too busy snatching up cute little eggplants and buying pizza by the pound to examine the heads of radicchio.
When I got around to making my new favorite pasta it was spectacular once again, though I think Ali's version will still be the more special of the two as far as my mind and taste buds are concerned. But the best part about the dish was discovering a new veggie in the produce section, and it may just be making an appearance in Italian dishes I'll make in the near future.
--Phoebe Lapine of Big Girls, Small Kitchen
Rigatoni con Radicchio, Panna, e Salsiccia
Makes 4 servings
I couldn't find breakfast sausage at the meat counter, just sweet Italian. Ali specified that the sausage should not have fennel seeds since they have such a distinct flavor. Unfortunately, the sausage I used was sweet Italian, and it did have fennel seeds. Oops. I still thought this version tasted great. One recommendation the (Italian) butcher gave me: add 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar to the sausage as it's browning. This will help adjust the flavors (breakfast sausage actually tends to be sweeter) and help the meat caramelize.
1 small onion, diced
1lb uncooked breakfast sausage (or sweet Italian,* just add sugar), removed from casing
1 1/2 tsp sugar* (optional, see note above)
2 small heads of radicchio di treviso (long, not round), halved and cut into 1-inch strips
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated parmiggiano cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta according to package directions until just shy of al dente. Reserve 1/4 cup of cooking liquid.
In a large skillet, saute the onion over medium-high heat in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until tender and beginning to brown, about 8 minutes.
Add the sausage to a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
NOTE: I skipped this step since I don't have a food processor. It is fine to just add the sausage to the pan and break it up with a spatula into very fine bits as it browns. Just make sure there are no large chunks.
Push the onions to the sides of the pan and add the sausage. Continue to cook over high heat, breaking apart the pieces with your spatula, until fully browned and beginning to caramelize. If you are using sweet Italian, add the sugar with the meat.
Turn the heat back down to medium, and add the radicchio to the pan. Saute gently until the leaves are very wilted and reduced in size by half.
NOTE: try not to use too much of the base of the radicchio which has no red leaves, and is only stalk/core. If you do, chop it a little finer, as it will take longer to become tender.
Turn the heat down to low and add the cream. Saute for a few minutes until incorporated. Add the cheese add toss to combine. Add the drained pasta to the pot and continue to cook for a minute or so. If the sauce is too thick, add a bit of the cooking water.
Serve immediately with some extra grated cheese and some chopped parsley, if you have it on hand.
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