If you’re a traditionalist, look away now. What follows is a modern twist on an ancient dish, Pasta Alla Gricia. If you do turn away, however, you’ll miss out on a one-pot wonder that is perfect for evenings when you’re craving an easy indulgence but don’t want to order that cheesy pizza.
Traditional Pasta Alla Gricia, which is said to be a dish of Roman origins, first enjoyed centuries ago by Roman shepherds, is enduring because it delivers big flavor with simple ingredients. It is part of the “cucina povera,” a term used to describe the cooking of the country’s poor. Such dishes as carbonara and cacio e pepe also fall under that category.
Pasta is tossed with crispy guanciale (cured pork jowl), pasta cooking water and grated pecorino Romano. The fat from the rendered meat, the starchy water and the grated cheese, when vigorously stirred with the pasta, emulsify into a glossy, porky, cheesy sauce that coats the individual spaghetti strands.
Pile it into a bowl, and dig in. So good.
In her cookbook, “Keeping it Simple: Easy Weeknight One-Pot Recipes,” (Hardie Grant, 2020), author Yasmin Fahr recommends the traditional guanciale, but she adds bite-size pieces of kale to help us meet our daily vegetable requirements.
She also gives us permission to substitute pancetta or bacon for the harder-to-find guanciale. And she gives the thumbs-up to trying other cheeses, such as Parmesan.
I’m with Fahr. This preparation can be a mix-and-match affair quickly pulled together with ingredients that most of us have in the refrigerator and pantry.
Along with making the dish with pancetta and bacon, I’ve experimented by subbing in spinach for Fahr’s kale. Next, I want to try arugula and grana Padano.
My favorite combination so far? Pancetta, spinach and Parmesan because this protein and the spinach are milder tasting and cook quickly; and finely grated Parmesan emulsifies so easily into the sauce.
In the preparation steps, waiting for the water to come to a boil and then for the pasta to cook until just shy of al dente is what takes the most time.
Fahr recommends using that waiting time to cut the meat (she uses scissors) and cook it until crisp; then rough chop or tear the kale into bite-size pieces and grate the cheese.
For the meat, the cooking time will vary depending on which you choose and how crispy you like it. Thinly sliced pancetta cut into bite-size pieces cooks the fastest and, again, has a milder flavor. Traditional guanciale is delicious, but bacon is so much easier to find. One caution: If the bacon is smoked, that flavor can overpower the dish.
A few things to keep in mind:
• Use only 2 quarts of water to boil a pound of pasta for this dish. This will yield a starchier water for creating that emulsified sauce.
• Do not overcook the pasta. You want it a bit firm, so that when you vigorously stir the spaghetti with the meat, cheese and water, it retains its shape. This dish requires about 4 to 5 minutes of vigorous stirring, so those with hand or wrist issues might need an assist.
• When cooking fatty meats, you may want to pour off some of the fat before adding the greens to the pot. Retain the fat and add it back in with greens, as needed.
• If, while rendering the fat, browned bits stick to the bottom of the pan, add a splash of the pasta water and use a wooden spoon to loosen them up. Then, add the greens and proceed.
If you’re watching salt, fat and/or carbs, this dish is not for you. It is, however, one that I now keep in my back pocket for weeknights when I want to scratch that easy, cheesy carb itch without getting takeout. If you want to feel at least a bit virtuous, slip that kale or spinach into the mix; and add a sidekick of a healthful, crispy green salad.
And then play around with your own variations. Try linguine or penne? Maybe arugula? Add crushed red pepper flakes? Or, perhaps, a smidgen of minced garlic?
I sometimes find it hard to leave well enough alone.
Cheesy Pasta With Bacon and Kale (Pasta Alla Gricia)
This one-pot wonder comes together in minutes. It’s a twist on an ancient Roman pasta recipe.
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Kosher salt, optional
1 pound spaghetti
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, with more for pasta
8 ounces bacon, guanciale or pancetta, cut into 3/4-inch cubes or strips
10 1/2 ounces curly kale, stems removed, chopped or torn into bite-size pieces
1 cup (3 1/2 ounces) finely grated pecorino Romano cheese or Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot filled with 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add salt, if desired. Cook the pasta in the boiling water for 7 minutes, about 4 minutes less than the package instructions indicate.
When the pasta is cooked, drain, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the cooking water. Immediately drizzle the drained pasta with olive oil. Use tongs or a wooden spoon to toss and coat the pasta with the oil.
Dry the pot with a kitchen towel and it set over medium heat. Add the 1 tablespoon of oil and heat until shimmering. Add the bacon and cook, stirring frequently, until the fat is mostly rendered, about 5 minutes. If bits of meat are sticking to the bottom of the pot, add a splash of pasta water and use a wooden spoon to loosen them.
Add the kale and cook, stirring, until it wilts and starts to brown in spots, 3 to 4 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low. Fluff the cooked pasta with a fork and then add it, the cheese and 1 cup of the reserved pasta water to the pot. Stir vigorously until the cheese melts and transforms into a creamy sauce that coats the pasta, 4 to 5 minutes. If the sauce is too thick or dry, add more pasta water, 2 tablespoons at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency.
Taste and season with pepper, as desired.
Recipe adapted from Yasmin Fahr in “Keeping it Simple: Easy Weeknight One-Pot Recipes,” (Hardie Grant, 2020)
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.
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More easy stir-fry recipes from Voraciously:
Calories: 570; Total Fat: 24 g; Saturated Fat: 9 g; Cholesterol: 40 mg; Sodium: 520 mg; Carbohydrates: 61 g; Protein: 23 g.