Recently while flipping through Janet Fletcher's Four Seasons Pasta, I ran across a recipe for Pasta with Red Bell Peppers and Prosciutto. Because I happened to have those three ingredients in the house and I hadn't yet come up with a plan for dinner, I stopped to take a closer look to see if this pasta might be a good candidate for our evening meal. As I looked at it I realized I was looking at a slight variation of Patricia Wells' Tagliatelle with Tricolor Peppers and Basil from her book Trattoria—a pasta I have been making for years. I have made many variations on this pasta, but for some reason have never thought to add prosciutto. I thought it sounded like an inspired addition.
The Patricia Wells version of this pasta sauce is the essence of simplicity: Bell peppers are cut into quarter inch wide strips, tossed with red pepper flakes and a generous quantity of olive oil and then cooked in a covered pan over the lowest possible heat until they are very tender. The sauce is finished with basil. That's it. If you love bell peppers, you can't help but love this pasta. It is excellent as is, with no alterations or embellishments.
Having said that, I have to tell you that the basic idea of this sauce (peppers étuvéed in olive oil) is the foundation for many, many variations. Besides the pepper flakes, there are quite a number of ingredients that can be added to the olive oil to impart subtle (or even not so subtle) flavor to the final dish. I almost never make it without gently sizzling some finely minced garlic in the oil before adding the peppers. Janet Fletcher adds dried oregano to the garlic and omits the pepper flakes. When I made her version, I used some minced fresh rosemary instead of the oregano...and kept both the pepper flakes and the garlic.
But you shouldn't feel limited to herbs and garlic. I have once or twice added toasted and freshly ground fennel seed to the olive oil with the pepper flakes...the list of possible additions (and combinations of additions) is long.
Similarly, after making it a time or two, you will discover that you can come up with all kinds of interesting ways to "finish" this sauce. In her original recipe, Patricia Wells adds a handful of basil and suggests an optional dusting of freshly grated Parmesan. Sometimes I serve it with the Parmesan, but just as often I leave the cheese off...or go for a saltier finish with some Pecorino. I have also served it topped with crumbles of Ricotta Salata. The basil can be replaced with other herbs....or left out altogether. Minced Italian parsley is nice. Aromatic marjoram might be another good choice if you happen to have some on hand. I have on occasion added a few capers and olives to the sauce toward the end—allowing them to warm up and gently infuse the peppers with their flavors while the pasta cooks. But be careful not to add so many that they overwhelm the peppers...they should provide only an occasional exclamation point of flavor.
As I mentioned at the start, I'm not sure why it had never occurred to me to finish this pasta with prosciutto. It really is a brilliant addition—adding subtle salt and a mellow richness. Fletcher accentuates this richness by stirring in a bit of unsalted butter at the end. I was amazed at how good it was. Since we are nearing the end of pepper season, I will be making this version again soon.
For simplicity's sake, I am posting the recipe as I made it the day I took the pictures—with all red bell peppers, seasoned with garlic, pepper flakes and rosemary, and finished with prosciutto. If you would like to make Patricia Wells original version, follow the adjustments given in the note at the bottom of the recipe. No matter which version of this pasta you choose to make—or how you vary it to suit your mood and your pantry—keep in mind that the core of the recipe is the slow and gentle cooking of the peppers. Make sure that you keep them over the lowest heat possible. It may seem like there is nothing at all going on in the pan at first, but rest assured that after 30 or 40 minutes, the peppers will be soft, juicy and tender.
Fettuccine with Red Bell Peppers and Prosciutto
5 or 6 red bell peppers
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1/2 t. crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 1/2 t. chopped fresh rosemary
3 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, cut cross-wise into 1/4 inch strips
3/4 lb. fettuccine
2 T. unsalted butter
Core and seed the peppers. Cut them into pencil-thin strips. Pour the oil into a covered, deep 12-inch skillet and warm over moderate heat. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and rosemary. Cook briefly to release the fragrance of the garlic and rosemary. Add the peppers and toss to coat with the oil. Season lightly with salt.
Reduce the heat to very low and cook covered, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are very soft but not mushy—about 30 to 40 minutes. Do not increase the heat to try and speed this process up, the peppers might burn or get tough and dry. You want to retain as much cooking liquid as possible, for an unctuous sauce.
When the peppers are tender, uncover, add the prosciutto and toss to combine. Remove from the heat.
Bring a large pot of well-salted water (at least 6 quarts) to the boil over high heat. Add the fettuccine and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid. Return the pan of peppers to low heat. Add the pasta and toss well. Add the butter and toss until the butter melts—adding as much pasta water as necessary to create a light, fluid sauce that just coats the pasta. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
(Recipe adapted from Trattoria by Patricia Wells and Four Seasons Pasta by Janet Fletcher)
Notes & Variations:
• Wells' original recipe called for three colors of peppers (green, red & yellow). The day I photographed this post, I only had red bell peppers on hand, so that's what I used. Typically I make it with 2 red, 2 yellow and 2 orange bell peppers (I'm not fond of green peppers and if given the choice, don't eat them). When made with multi-colored peppers, the is an exceptionally pretty pasta.
• If not adding the prosciutto, omit the butter and start the peppers in 6 T. olive oil.
• For Patricia Wells' original version make the sauce without the prosciutto and butter, omit the garlic and rosemary, and add 1/4 cup basil chiffonade to the sauce along with the fettuccine.