Cooking Pizzoccheri

A hearty cool-weather dish that’s delicioso and easy to make

About a week ago, I went to Cucina in Woodstock to write a review for this magazine (read it here). My hubby and I both loved chef Gianni Scappin’s simple but inspired food. While I was looking at the restaurant’s Web site later, I ran across an interview Scappin conducted with the BBC in which he mentions that his favorite dish is pizzoccheri: buckwheat tagliatelle tossed with boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes, a lot of sage, and bitto cheese. “Super simple but delicious, rustic, and memorable,” he declares, adding that he’s never put the dish on a menu because people are turned off by the words “buckwheat” and “cabbage.” Well, I’m a person who’s turned on by such words, not to mention the words “super simple” and “delicious.” I also happened to have a big fresh cabbage in the fridge. So when I called Scappin to check on a couple of things, I told him I wanted to make pizzoccheri, and asked how he does it.

“It’s perfect for a rainy night,” he observed (it was one of our rare rainy nights), and then gave me instructions that kicked off in a promising way. “Instead of making a mess,” Scappin said, “the simplest way is to get the water boiling and put the buckwheat, sliced cabbage, and thin-sliced potatoes in at the same time. Yukon golds are perfect,” he added, “because they have thin skins so you don’t have to peel them. And if the potato breaks down it’s even better, because you get the natural creaminess. When the buckwheat is cooked, put everything in a saute pan with some melted butter and sage leaves and a little of the water so it won’t stick, toss it nicely, add Fontina cheese, just long enough to melt, and some Parmesan, and serve right away.”

Easy peasy. Unless you need a little more info about amounts or proportions… I found a video of Mark Bittman making his version of pizzoccheri (Bittman writes the Minimalist column for the Dining section of the New York Times), although he layers his and finishes it in the oven with bread crumbs on top. Sounds good, but I wanted to make Scappin’s version.

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Problem: Although my little hometown of High Falls is officially the Center of the Universe, neither the health food co-op or our local supermarket had buckwheat tagliatelle. Scappin says you can use soba noodles; I wound up with buckwheat rigatoni (not ideal, but OK). Nor did I expect to find bitta cheese (Fontina does as well, says Scappin). I still had no certainty about proportions, but I figured Italian women have been making this for centuries without a recipe, so I winged it. I shredded half my cabbage, sliced a couple of big potatoes, and dumped them into boiling water. After a couple of minutes, I made a wild guess about how much buckwheat rigatoni to use. When the pasta was cooked, I drained everything, and reserved a little of the water. Then I heated almost a stick of butter in my oversized cast-iron skillet, let it brown, and added a dozen or so fresh sage leaves. A couple of minutes later, in went the pasta, cabbage, and potatoes and I tossed it all nicely (as per Scappin’s instructions). Last, I added about a handful of cubed Fontina cheese, and, when it melted, a hearty sprinkling of Parmesan. Creamy, rich, hearty, divine! My skeptical husband liked it so much he had seconds.

Thanks, Gianni Scappin, for teaching me a quick, easy, wonderful dish that seems just about foolproof!

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