Pizzoccheri alla Valtellinese

This is a robust dish of buckwheat pasta, potatoes and greens in an oozy sauce of alpine cheese, butter and garlic from the northern Lombardy region. I first saw this on the Alps and Arrangiarsi episode of The Two Greedy Italians. I fell in love with that episode set in the foothills of the alps – something about how rustic the cooking was and how connected the food and the culture was to the land and the mountainous terrain struck of chord with me. When I saw Gennaro cooking the pizzoccheri I knew I was going to try this at home. Over the course of cooking this several times at home and for friends it has become a firm favourite of the house. I can understand how the sheer quantity of butter and cheese might dissuade you, but seriously you need to try this at home. I promise that you won’t regret it (and no you can’t skimp on the butter, or use Flora).

Buckwheat Pasta

I’ve cooked this a number of times and on a couple of occasions I’ve made my own pizzoccheri pasta, but I’m a realist, I know this relegates making this to special occasions at weekends. Fortunately recent trends in healthy eating means the supermarket shelves now have a wealth of wholegrain, spelt and even buckwheat dried pastas. My favourite substitute is buckwheat fusilli, the twists are suitably similar to pizzoccheri noodles. Buckwheat pasta can be expensive, so I can also recommend and have cooked this with whole grain and spelt grain dried pastas and all make fine substitutes for the handmade pizzoccheri noodles. But do try to make your own if you have time, the recipe is at the end.

Greens

Greens wise we’re in brassica heaven! I’ve found recipes using savoy cabbage, white cabbage, Swiss chard, kale and spinach in varying mixtures. So I wouldn’t be limited here, there’s great brassicas that grow here in the UK so I very much go with whatever is in season and available.I’ve even thrown in some sprouting broccoli and sprout flowers – it’s all good. I prefer robust, strong greens, rather than young greens like leafy baby spinach, but by all means throw some in if you have it. 

The Cheeses

The dish calls for Valtellina or Bitto cheese, both from dairies in the northern region of Lombardy, Fontina is listed as a more readily available alternative. To date I’ve not found any of these and in truth I haven’t really gone further than the posh cheese section of my local supermarkets in my search. So this is where I’m at – Taleggio and Gruyere. Taleggio is also from Lombardy but is probably too soft a cheese because dicing it up is akin to weaving yoghurt. I’ve taken to slicing it and then tearing the slices into chunks. What I am happy with is how it melts gloriously, bringing everything together with a lovely mild umami laced cheesiness. The gruyere I’ve kinda thrown in as this is often listed as a sort of if you really really must, last ditch alternative to Fontina. It’s probably fine with either, but I’ve always done a mixture of the two. I endeavour to bump into some Valtellina or Bitto at some point and will report back if and when I cook with it.

Makes 4-6 generous, super filling portions.

Ingredients

  • 250g kale/cabbage/cavolo nero/spinach – stalks removed and roughly chopped.
  • 2 white, ideally waxy, potatoes – 1cm dice.
  • 1 batch of pizzoccherri noodles, or 300g buckwheat fusilli – wholewheat or spelt will work too.
  • 200g Taleggio cheese – diced or chunked up as best you can.
  • 100g gruyere cheese – diced or grated.
  • 30g parmesan cheese + more for garnishing.
  • 100g butter – yes you need all it and maybe a bit more (no you can’t use Flora).
  • 2 cloves of garlic finely chopped.
  • 2 tbl chopped fresh sage (optional).

Method

Another joy of this dish is simplicity of cooking it. The pasta, the spuds and the greens are all cooked in the same pot, drenched in the garlicky butter and then layered up with the cheeses and warmed through in the oven.

Pre-heat the oven to 200c, gas 6.

Roughly chop up and rinse your greens, removing the tough stalky bits. Peel and dice up the potatoes and boil these together with the buckwheat fusilli in plenty of salted water. Cook until the pasta is al dente – around 9-10 mins.

Drain and reserve a cup of the pasta cooking liquor.

In the empty pasta pan, melt the butter and gently cook the chopped garlic and sage (if using) until the garlic is ever so slightly golden.

Add the cup of pasta cooking liquor and bring to a simmer, stirring to create an emulsified butter sauce.

Add the drained pasta, greens and potatoes back into the pot and stir to coat all the ingredients in the buttery garlic sauce.

In an ovenproof dish alternate layers of the pasta mix with a sprinkling of your chosen cheeses and few grinds of black pepper, finish the top layer with a generous topping of the parmesan cheese.

This isn’t a baked pasta dish – we really just want to pop it in the oven just for the cheeses to melt, so place it in a hot oven for around 10-15 minutes to warm through. If you leave it too long the pasta on top starts to dry out and go crunchy.

Serve topped with more freshly grated parmesan and black pepper.

Making the Pizzoccheri

Making the noodles is really quite straightforward. I’ve done it a few times now, once using wheat flour and once replacing the wheat flour with a gluten free substitute to make totally gluten free pizzoccheri. I use the one from Dove’s farm that has the xanthan gum already added to give it some strength to make up for the lack of gluten.

Ingredients

  • 200g buckwheat flour.
  • 100g 00/plain/all purpose flour, or gluten free flour substitute if using.
  • 200ml hot water.

Method

Sieve the flours together.

Add the warm water and quickly bring together to create a smooth dough.

Wrap in cling film and leave in the fridge to relax for around 30+ minutes.

Cut into 4 equal chunks, roll each chunk into a short sausage.

Dust your work surface in flour.

Use a rolling pin to roll into a long strip of dough about 12-15cm wide and about as thick as a £1 coin.

Dust the surface of the dough in more flour and fold the dough twice along it’s length.

Use a sharp knife to cut 1cm wide noodles.

Add the pizzoccheri noodles to the boiling pot of potatoes and greens and cook exactly as you would with the fusilli.