This dish is kind of a blast from the past for me. Not the specific ingredients, but it is so much the way I cooked for most of my adult life. Nothing complicated, just a simple pasta mixed with a bunch of flavorful and harmonious ingredients. No real sauce beyond the melting smoked mozzarella and a little sherry.
From what I’ve seen in Italy, this style of pasta really isn’t particularly Italian, where they tend to favor simple pastas with just a few components, often as a prelude to a heartier second course. This style is more of an American take, with a thoughtfully chosen “kitchen sink” of ingredients to maximize flavor and texture, interesting enough to be a meal on its own.
This is an easy way to eat because it requires no recipe and minimal technique, comes together fast, adapts well to whatever is seasonal and what is in your pantry, and pretty much everyone likes pasta. Let me see if I can write down some of the “rules” that make this kind of dish turn out great (choices for this particular dish are in [brackets]):
- Shaped pastas, rather than strands, tend to work better with this kind of chunky “sauce” [conchiglie]
- Salt the water aggressively (1.5 tablespoons / gallon), have it at a rolling boil, and be sure to pull the pasta out when it is al dente – a little of bite left, not flaccid.
- Choose at least one ingredient with big flavor [smoked mozzarella]
- Choose at least one ingredient with some crunch [toasted green pumpkin seeds]. Use it as a final garnish so it doesn’t get soggy.
- Short on fresh stuff? Open up the pantry or freezer and grab roasted red peppers, olives, capers, frozen baby peas, [artichoke bottoms, white beans] …
- Try to get a range of sweet [pasta, sherry], salty [cheese], bitter [chard], sour, herbacious [sage, thyme], umami [cheese] and spicy [chili flakes] flavors, so that each bite is a varied experience. You might not hit all of those notes, but try to have some contrasts.
- Toss the cooked pasta with the “sauce” for a minute over a moderate flame, to allow the flavors to marry. Reserve 1 cup of the boiled pasta water and add it as necessary during that mixing to loosen and achieve a good serving texture. The water is salted and slightly thick from starch, so it will allow you to moisten without diluting your flavors. If you’ve never tried this before, trust me – it is magic.
Conchiglie Pasta with Swiss Chard and Smoked Mozzarella
Serves 3-4 as a main course
Vegetarian; not vegan or gluten-free but adaptable
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
- 3 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped or 2 teaspoons dried
- 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes (or to your taste)
- 2 bunches of chard leaves (any variety), stemmed, cleaned, and roughly sliced or torn
- 1 can artichoke bottoms (or hearts, but bottoms are better), medium slices
- 1/2 can white beans
- 1/2 cup dry sherry
- 2/3 pound smoked mozzarella, cubed
- 1 pound conchiglie
- 1/4 cup shelled pumpkin seeds (pepita, they should be green), lightly toasted
- salt and pepper
- Put one gallon of water to boil in a large pot with 1.5 tablespoons of salt.
- Heat a very large skillet (preferably not a non-stick one) over a medium high flame. Add the oil, then a few seconds later add the garlic and onion. Saute for 1 minute, then add the thyme, sage, and chili flakes, and saute for 10 more seconds. Add the chard and 1.5 teaspoons of salt, toss, and cover for a few minutes. You can probably drop the pasta at this point.
- When the chard is tender, remove the lid, and add the artichokes, white beans and sherry and reduce the heat to medium low. Scrape the bottom of the pan thoroughly with your spatula so the sherry picks up lots of caramelized flavors.
- When the pasta is just barely al dente, reserve 1 cup of the water and drain it. Return it to the pot you cooked it in, toss with a little more olive oil, then empty in the contents of the skillet, being sure to scrape out all the flavorful stuff on the bottom.
- Return the pot to the a medium low flame, add the mozzarella cubes, and stir constantly for one minute. If it seems a little “tight”, add some of the pasta water. Taste and adjust for salt.
- To serve, divide among the bowls, top with the pumpkin seeds and a grind of fresh black pepper.