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Snapshots from Italy: Pasta e Fagioli with 'Nduja

I went on a little shopping spree at the Mercato Rionale in Prati last week. The covered market is a beautiful example of the graceful, Liberty-style architecture found in this Roman neighborhood, not far from the Vatican. Inside, the aisles are lined with colorful stalls selling gorgeous produce, fresh and cured meats, seafood and handmade pasta. My bee-line led straight to a modest little stand trumpeting "Produtti Tipici di Calabria," including honey, olive oil, candies, savory biscuits, and wine, all from traditional Calabrian producers. Very nice, but I came in search of 'nduja. The good stuff, please.

'Nduja is a soft, creamy pork sausage made with Calabria's own beloved, fiery, red peperoncino, and it isn't for the faint of heart. I am Calabrian, born with a genetic tolerance for the region's indigenous red pepper that is used to spice up nearly everything. Bravado aside, I accepted the hankie offered by the stand's owner, who gave me a taste of his 'nduja on a piece of bread. A few moments later I was dabbing my eyes and asking for half a kilo.

Excited conversation about mutual love of real 'nduja was followed by more samples of spicy soppressata and narrow, chewy dried salsiccia, both stained varying shades of red. When eating Calabrian cured meats, the color will give a clue to the degree of heat. It helps to be prepared. Cue another hankie.

I've never been crazy about too much heat in my food, but the deliciously porky fire of 'nduja is an exception. There's a layering of flavors that works perfectly; the incendiary heat of the peperoncino produces a flash of pain that mellows just enough for the flavor of the pig to make its entrance. I don't favor the stuff in jars; it never truly achieves the crucial balance between hot and piggy that you get with 'nduja that is cured and gently smoked in a podlike natural casing.

Since that day, it's been 'Nduja Week in my kitchen, with bouts of fierce sweating, tear-stained cheeks, and moans of painful pleasure that scare the heck out of my cats. The quick and direct method is to spread some 'nduja on lightly toasted bread, dribbled with a bit of olive oil. Adding a smear of creamy sheep's milk ricotta tames the fire nicely. I've also topped it with softly scrambled eggs and snipped chives for a breakfast bruschetta (right), and sautéed it into home-fried potatoes.

Pasta e Fagioli with 'Nduja

But so far my favorite treat has been a jacked-up version of pasta e fagioli made with the plump, roundish Calabrian white beans I also picked up that day. After soaking the beans overnight, I simmered them with some onion, carrot, celery, and bay leaf until they were tender. Putting the rest of the dish together is quick and easy: Sizzle some garlic in a generous amount of good olive oil, adding a spoonful or two of 'nduja and melting it right into the oil. Throw in the beans with a bit of their cooking liquid and some short pasta, cooked al dente. I follow my mom's tradition of using ditali, or "little tubes," but small shells or mini farfalle would work too. Simmer for a minute to bind the flavors together, and serve with some grated Pecorino Romano and a drizzle of olive oil. Sweet, hot heaven on a chilly winter night.

Note: You can find jarred 'nduja at Italian specialty shops or can substitute dried, spicy Calabrese sausage, finely diced, in the above method for pasta e fagioli.

About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. She is currently in Rome researching her next book and further exploring her passions for Italian food.

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