This is a very typical Neapolitan dish and almost embodies the essence of cucina povera. In Naples, you will find it at home and in many restaurants and trattorie. It is very easy to prepare and is inexpensive.
Yes, this is, in fact, a recipe for pasta and potatoes. Carbohydrates are not bad for you. They are not evil or unhealthy or make one “fat”. We need them and they are delicious. Potatoes are maligned and sometimes regarded as a “lesser” food because they are carbs and because of other misguided notions.
Potatoes are incredibly nutritious, contain fibre and there are a myriad varieties and colour including purple and pink. In fact, there are 3800 different varieties in Peru, which, along with Chile and Bolivia, is where potato cultivation first began some 10,000 years ago. So eat your pasta and get reacquainted with the glorious potato.
The dish is usually made with short pasta because it works best. Even more typically, the dish uses mixed pasta shapes. You could use whatever left over pasta you have in the cupboard – you know, those packets that contain too little pasta for one dish, but not enough for more – including, breaking up spaghetti or linguine and combining those with any short-shaped pasta. But really, use whatever you fancy.
My departures from the orthodox recipe include using orecchiette, adding spinach, and sprinkling flax meal on the pasta for the extra omega boost and creaminess.
Serves four. Recipe after the photo.
- 600g potatoes, chopped in medium-sized cubes (peel them if you fancy, I generally do not)
- 500g pasta (a small or mixed variety)
- 100-150g mushrooms (brown or shiitake or whatever other kind you like)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 2 teaspoons fresh)
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 3-4 cherry tomatoes or half a medium-sized tomato, chopped (and if no tomatoes are available, then use 1 teaspoon of concentrated tomato paste)
- 1-2 handfuls of baby spinach or chard (optional), finely chopped
- 2-4 Tablespoons nutritional yeast (the amount depends on whether you use any cheese)
- 2 teaspoons flax meal
- 1 chili pepper, finely chopped, or chili flakes to taste (either is optional)
- 2 teaspoons creamy smoked cheese OR anywhere between 50 and 150g (depending on how cheesy you want it!) melty smoked cheese (optional and more details on that in the Method section below)
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (required if you will not be using cheese and optional if you will be)
- 500 ml of the pasta cooking water reserved
- olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
In a wide frying pan on medium-low heat, sauté the shallot in a bit of olive oil until it is translucent.
Add the mushrooms and chili. Mix well. Let the mushrooms brown and release all their moisture. Then, add the tomatoes (or the tomato paste). Both the mushrooms and the tomatoes will add the umami that this dish needs.
Let the mixture cook until the tomatoes have lost their shape.
Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, start preparing the pasta (see basic pasta cooking method here, if you need it). You only will need to cook the pasta until it is very al dente because you will finish cooking it when you will combine the pasta with the potatoes. Usually, you will reach this cooking point at least two minutes before the cooking time indicated on the packet. So, keep an eye on the pasta! When it is ready, drain the pasta and remember to reserve 500 ml of the cooking water because you will need it to finish cooking the dish.
In the frying pan with the shallot, tomatoes and mushrooms, add the potatoes and thyme, mix well and let cook for approximately 10-15 minutes. The cooking time will depend on the size of the cubed potato and the variety. You will know the potatoes are cooked when they are tender and easily pierced with a fork. They should not fall apart. Remember that you will be combining the pasta with the potatoes and finishing the pasta cooking at that point.
Once the potatoes are ready, mix the pasta with the mixture of potato, tomato, shallot and mushrooms. Over medium-low heat, gradually pour in some (not all!) of the cooking water. Mix well and let the pasta absorb the water.
As you see that the pasta absorbs the water, add a bit more water, until the pasta is cooked.
Add the flax meal, spinach and at this point also add the cheese.
Depending on your means and inclination, you may use commercially available melty cheese (and if you cannot find smoked cheese, be sure to add the smoked paprika at this point), or you can make your own – a good and easy recipe for melty smoked cheese is Bunny Kitchen’s 15 minute Sliceable and Meltable Vegan Cheese or my own recipe for Provola Affumicata. I have also used Gozo Deli’s smoked paprika casheese, which is a creamy-type cheese.
Add two tablespoons of nutritional yeast if you are using cheese.
If you are not using cheese, no need to worry! This method of finishing the pasta cooking using the pasta water will heighten creaminess as will the flax meal. Add four tablespoons of nutritional yeast and make sure you also mix in the smoked paprika.
Season to taste and add a bit of olive oil if you fancy. Serve hot.
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