Saturday, August 14, 2010

Judi Rodgers' Pasta with Corn, Pancetta, Butter & Sage

I was recently asked during a cooking class on seasonal foods if I had any "go to" pasta recipes for summer. For someone who eats pasta as much as I do, how could I not?  One I have already posted—Susan Loomis's Penne with Zucchini and Basil.  Today's post is about another.

Part of what makes them fast and easy is that they are both essentially one ingredient pastas. If you have the featured vegetable on hand (and you probably will have corn or zucchini if you are shopping at the farmers' market regularly), grow a few herbs outside your kitchen door (basil, sage, thyme, etc.) and keep a reasonably well-stocked pantry of pasta staples (dried pastas, olive oil, butter, Parmesan, Pancetta/Prosciutto in the freezer...), you should be able to have dinner on the table in about 20 minutes. Everyone needs a few recipes like that.

Several years ago a friend gave me a copy of Judi Rodgers' The Zuni Café Cookbook. I love this cookbook. Judi Rodgers' obsession with the details of the processes of cooking warms my heart. I can always rely on her for detailed explanations of what is going on in the pan or in the oven. She also shares practical and philosophical reasons for her choices of ingredients and methods. Her book is a wonderfully crafted window into the mind of a thoughtful and talented chef. If these kinds of things appeal to you, I cannot recommend her book enough.

One of the first recipes I tried from the book was for her Pasta with Corn, Pancetta, Butter & Sage. I was attracted to it for a number of reasons, but probably the thing that really got me was that this is a recipe that is a celebration of the glories of buttered corn. In July or August, what could be better?

I should warn you up front that there is a lot of butter in this recipe. But don't let the amount of butter given in the list of ingredients scare you off. If you have beautifully fresh corn, then it should be juicy enough that with a judicious addition of pasta water, swirled in along with the butter, you should not need the full amount to obtain a slightly creamy sauce that just coats the pasta and corn. I usually make half a recipe and almost always use only 3 or 4 tablespoons of butter.

Besides the butter, another thing I love about this recipe is how all the ingredients compliment the sweetness of the corn—nothing has been added thoughtlessly. Each ingredient plays a specific role and there doesn't seem to be anything that is just filler. The musty and slightly bitter character of the sage and the saltiness of the pancetta both contrast nicely with the corn. And corn is always better with the addition of a little freshly ground black pepper. Everything comes together perfectly for a simple, fast and flavorful dinner.

Rodgers' suggests variations—prosciutto instead of pancetta or a little cream at the end. She also suggests the addition of a handful of freshly shelled peas. This last addition may be a possibility with some frequency in the Bay Area, but here in Missouri and Kansas we almost never have the kind of growing season that allows corn and peas to overlap. But this year we did—for about one week. So I was able to try this variation. I highly recommend it:

Last night I had a couple of baby yellow squash left at the end of the week. I love squash with corn, so I added it to the pasta (slicing it thinly and cooking it for the last minute or two with the fettuccine as in the Zucchini Pasta mentioned above). I used thyme in place of the sage and a little basil at the end.

This was good too. But most of the time I just follow the original recipe. It's just about perfect as written.

Pasta with Corn, Pancetta, Butter & Sage

2 to 3 oz. pancetta, minced (1/3 to 1/2 c.)
4 to 8 oz. unsalted butter
6 fresh sage leaves, cut chiffonade
Salt & Pepper
1 lb. fettuccine (orecchiette and farfalle also work well)
2 1/2 c. freshly cut corn kernels with their milky juice

Cook the pancetta in a few slices of the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Stir and scrape to make sure it cooks evenly. When the pancetta has browned slightly on the edges and is starting to sizzle, turn off the heat, add a few drops of water to cool the pan, and stir, then add another few slices of butter, the sage, and a few grinds of black pepper. Swirl the pan, then leave the aromatics to infuse in the melting butter.

Drop the pasta into 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with about 2 Tablespoons of salt. Stir and cook until the pasta is al dente.

Meanwhile, turn the heat under the skillet to medium, and add another few tablespoons of sliced butter. Swirl the pan. When the butter is nearly melted, add the corn, stir, and cook until heated through.

If the corn seems dry, add some of the pasta water and/or some more of the butter. Taste for salt. Reduce the heat to low. When the pasta is cooked, drain well, then toss with the corn, taste again for salt and pepper, and serve. Offer freshly grated Parmesan. Serves 4 to 6.

(Recipe from The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judi Rodgers)


Paige said...

Oh Chris, I would be happy to, but I know you could make this!

Kelsey said...


Just sitting down to enjoy this lovely meal after you inspired me though this blog post. I did make a few adaptations like frozen veggies because the produce section at my local grocer here is quite underwhelming. I couldn't find any orrechiete so i used bow tie and had to go with parmesan since they didn't carry pecorino (I think that's what you used in class that I loved so much.

Anyway, loving reading your blog posts. Hope your enjoying your summer.


Paige said...


It's so nice to hear from you! We miss you at The Merc. I hope that all is well. Thanks for taking a minute to comment. I'm sure your pasta was great as you made it, but I hope you are able to find a good source of produce soon!