With all the vegetable blanching I was doing this past week, I was reminded of a pasta recipe I used to love to cook when I worked at Beppe, a Tuscan restaurant in NYC.
There's nothing about this recipe's Italian name, penne con stracotto di verdure, that's particularly appealing. It translates as penne "with overcooked vegetables," which is about as enticing as a spa offering a massage "with an absolutely terrible masseuse," or a music venue promoting a band "featuring musicians that suck." (Just imagine if I had titled this, How to Cook Penne With Overcooked Vegetables—it would probably manage to generate negative pageviews.)
I remember when my old boss and mentor, Chef Cesare Casella, first explained the recipe to me and asked me to cook it as a special one night at Beppe. Take some potato, some onion, green beans, carrots, and other vegetables, he instructed me, and cut them into very small pieces. Then, one at a time, you boil or steam them until they're very soft. Then put them in a bowl and mix them with lots of olive oil and raw minced garlic and toss it with the penne.
Hm, I recall thinking. This does not sound good. There are so many things theoretically wrong with this dish. First, the particular vegetables in question, while all essential ones, are not the most exciting—potatoes, carrots, onions...these are the kinds of ingredients that act as a base for something else more flavorful, so how could they possibly succeed as the sole flavoring agents of a pasta dish? Second, they have the life cooked out of them. And third, there's a starch-on-starch thing going on here with the potato and pasta that I was not convinced would do much to enhance the pasta.
"It's the art of making the most out of the least impressive, most humble ingredients."
But Cesare knows what he's talking about (and he was my boss), so I made it. And man, I could not believe how good it was. It's one of those great examples of what makes classic rustic Italian cooking so special: It's the art of making the most out of the least impressive, most humble ingredients.
As with most deceptively simple recipes, there are a few keys to this dish's success. First, you want to cut the vegetables small enough that some of the pieces will get lodged inside the penne tubes; when people talk about the interplay between pasta shape and sauce, this is the kind of thing they're referring to. Next, you want to overcook the vegetables enough that some of them (especially the potato) crush easily when pressed between the fingers, which is the secret to turning diced vegetables into something that resembles a sauce. And finally, you want to use a good olive oil here, because it ends up bringing a lot of flavor to the dish.
One last note: I recall Cesare telling me that the dish had to be made with the potatoes and green beans, or it wouldn't be the real deal. You definitely need the potatoes because they break down into the backbone of the sauce, but beyond that you really can be creative with the specific vegetables you use. I added fennel in my version, but I can't remember whether Cesare did in his. Feel free to play with it—just don't tell your dinner guests what it's actually called until after they've taken a bite, lest they flee before discovering just how good it is.