Much as grand-mères are responsible for the simple, perfect meals that I most cherish in French cuisine, nonnas have long been the source for the best of traditional Italian food. They get meals on the family table and pass their culinary skills and techniques on to daughters and granddaughters, keeping classic recipes alive. You’ll find many of them here, from veal osso buco to escarole and white bean soup, olive oil mashed potatoes, eggplant Parmigiana and savory seafood stew. "Lidia’s Favorite Recipes" is particularly rich in pasta dishes. That’s where I decided to start exploring.
I love when recipes teach me something. When I first started cooking, once something went into the pan, it was in there. Period. Then one day, I came across a recipe that had you brown an ingredient – probably meat of some sort – and remove it from the pan while you completed other steps, then return it to the pan for finishing. It was a revelation. Now it’s standard operating procedure to me, of course. Well, this recipe uses my earlier cooking style, layering flavor upon flavor as you keep adding ingredients to the pan. And it does it in a way that nonnas have always done, I think.
Besides being fairly quick and easy to prepare, this dish is just fun to cook. You put something in the pan and cook it for a bit, then make a hole in the center of the pan and add the next ingredient. After that cooks for a minute or two, you mix everything together and then make a hole for the next ingredient. The recipe was so simple and rustic, I was expecting good but basic. What I got was transcendent.
Ziti with sausage and fennel
Serves three as a main course, four or five as a primi course
1/2 pound ziti (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
1 fennel bulb, 1 pound or slightly less
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, halved lengthwise and sliced into half moons
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 cup tomato paste