PIZZOCCHERI: Buckwheat noodles in butter and garlic

[NOTE -- This recipe was contributed by Nick Fitch <nfitch@ucsd.edu>. His version of pizzoccheri (or buckwheat noodles, a specialty served in Valtellina in the Lombardy Alps) contains considerably more butter than the traditional version, which will be reproduced below his as soon as I type it in. Make this version, though, if you're feeling butter-decadent! -- Chuck]

If you're poor and you like cheese and garlic, you'll love this ...

I discovered pizzoccheri while vacationing with my family in Italy. Halfway up a mountain on the shores of Lake Como my great-grandfather owned a little property and it was there that I watched four matriarchs bustling around in the tiny and crude kitchen making what turned out to be pizzoccheri for about 15 people. My father, being my father, decided he loved it; he stuffed his face with it, had seconds, thirds, drank enormous quantities of rough red wine and promptly fell asleep in the sun - from which he later awoke feeling absolutely awful and to this day he has a Hollandaise sauce reaction to the mere mention of pizzoccheri.

First, and most importantly -- you simply MUST use [buckwheat noodles, or] whole wheat spaghetti. It makes the flavour completely different from what you might expect. It's intriguing ... the whole wheat pasta really throws things off. That's why you can't make it with ordinary pasta, or else it would just be spaghetti and cheese and garlic.

For those of you who can't bring yourselves to add that third stick of butter ... I find pizzoccheri tastes best when it's absolutely swimming in butter. The more butter and garlic you add, and the longer you fry the garlic in the butter, the better the thing comes out. Certainly for four people you shouldn't use less than three sticks of butter; but if you're scaling it down for just the two servings then two sticks is probably fine.

It's almost impossible to use too much cheese for this dish. Again, it's the [buckwheat or] whole wheat pasta, I think. I tend to be from the "handfulls" school of ingredient measuring, and I invariably cook too much spaghetti and have to throw some out when I make pizzoccheri. There's no recipe for it that I've ever seen so no-one has decreed a prescribed amount of pasta for it.

Don't worry about all the garlic, either ... if you fry the garlic chips in the butter until they're really brown and crispy the flavor of the garlic becomes softer and less likely to strip the wallpaper at ten paces. And if you were wondering how bok choi ended up in an Italian recipe: The original recipe calls for cabbage, but blanched bok choi stalks are crisper and give a better texture I think. Basically I couldn't find any cabbage when I last made pizzoccheri for my mother, brother and Chuck Hanrahan a few months back and I substituted. It worked out very well. The pine nuts are also an addition to the original. I've used slivered almonds too but pine nuts are better. Don't use lettuce, though. It's a complete waste of time. (Howard Arthur Faye <foucault@netcom.com> adds: "Marcella Hazan (not my favorite Italian cookbook author) suggests Savoy cabbage or Swiss chard, although I admire Nick's innovation.")

This is a very rich dish that will serve 4 to 6 people with nothing more than a light salad and a bottle of wine. It's so rich that despite everyone I've ever served it to loving it, I've only known one person ask for a second bowl of it and even he couldn't face breakfast the next day. If you can still face dessert, make it light, like a sorbet. I usually skip dessert after pizzoccheri, though a very light sorbet might make a refreshing conclusion to the meal. Lemon or lime. Just a small amount, though.

Oh, and it's pronounced <pee-TZZO-kay-ree>. I made up the spelling according to the pronunciation since I've never seen it written down, so I have no idea if this is how it's actually written - if it's written at all.

Weights and measures are vague as this is an adapted hand-me-down recipe from the Italian side of the family, not written in any cookbook I've ever seen.

Boil the [pizzoccheri or whole wheat] spaghetti in salted water (plus a little olive oil to prevent sticking) for 20 minutes. Peel and dice the potatoes into small cubes and boil for 20 minutes in unsalted water. Strip off the green leafy bits from 3 or 4 leaves of the bok choi, cut the stems into 1" pieces and blanch in boiling water for one minute. Grate the cheese.

Make several layers of pasta, cheese, pine nuts, bok choi and potatoes in an 8" square dish (ovenproof). When finished, work all the layers together with your fingers. Add a little more grated cheese and pine nuts to the top. You can't use too much cheese (or garlic, or pine nuts) but you can certainly use too little in this recipe, so err on the side of generosity.

Put the dish into the oven and bake at 350 degrees until the cheese is completely melted and the topmost strands of pasta are crisping up. In the meantime, melt the butter (again, you can't use too much, but you can use too little; you need a lot of butter for pizzoccheri) and fry the garlic chips in it until both they and the butter are browned. Remove the dish from the oven, tip the butter over the mixture and serve immediately. Serve in wide pasta bowls, making sure that you spoon some of the butter over each serving from the bottom of the dish.

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)