Pasta e Patate (Pasta and Potatoes)
It's happened to my family and I countless times. We're all back home from a long day at work and school. We have no idea what to make for dinner. Except for a celery stalk and a couple of carrots, there's not much in the fridge. As for the pantry, there are a handful of potatoes and a couple of onions. Oh, and of course, in true Italian fashion, lots of half-empty pasta packets. Those ingredients, however, are just what's required for making a last resort dish common to many households across the country: pasta e patate or pasta and potatoes.
Now, I've often found myself wearily making this bland-sounding salvacena(meaning 'dinner saver') on many a cold, dark evening, cursing myself for not being more organised with my food shopping the day before. Yet, this double-starched dish is anything but boring. The comfortingly warm broth and its subtle flavour invariably beckon my husband and daughter to come back for second and third helpings and bring a satisfied smile to their faces. It's probably one of my favourite things to cook and I must confess that I almost look forward to those occasions when fridge and pantry raiding will be called for come dinner time.
Pasta e patate takes many different forms across Italian households. Some home cooks prefer a denser, thicker soup where the potatoes almost fall apart with the addition of minimal stock or water. Others, prefer a broth with a more watery consistency and for the potatoes to remain intact. The liquid that's added can be a vegetable or meat-based stock. In the absence of these, salted boiling water will suffice. The basic soffritto of minced onion, celery and carrot can also be aromatised or enrichened with some minced parsley or rosemary, diced pancetta or guanciale. Garlic may or may not appear in different recipes too. And, in the region of Campania, it's not uncommon for locals to enliven matters even more by adding some tomato and chopped provola cheese to the mix. In this case, the result is not a brothy minestra or soup but a distinctly rich plateful of cheese-encased pasta. Comfort food at its stringy finest!
The pasta used can vary too. The authors of Sauces and Shapes, food historian Oretta Zanini de Vita and Rome-based translator Maureen B. Fant, have a pasta and potatoes recipe with the soupier, watery consistency I prefer in their wonderful cookbook and they recommend quadrucci, square-shaped egg noodles, as well as tubetti and the spaghetti spezzati (broken spaghetti) pictured. If you happen to make tagliatelle one day, you could also do as Oretta's childhood mentor Sister Attilia taught her, and reserve the offcuts from making this pasta for your bubbling pot of potato soup at dinnertime.
A final note regarding the recipe below, which is based on Oretta and Maureen's. My preference is for a slightly more watery soup, and my directions below reflect this. If you'd prefer a denser result though, you should opt for a smaller amount of stock (no more than 1.2 litres) and avoid covering your soup with a lid while it simmers away. Cooking the potatoes until they fall apart will also thicken your soup considerably. And, given that there'll be less liquid to cook your pasta of choice directly in the soup, you're best off bringing another pot of salted water to boil for cooking those quadrucci or strands of broken spaghetti to al dente perfection. When cooked through, simply take a slotted spoon and transfer the pasta to the pot containing the dense potato broth.
Ingredients (serves 4 as a starter)
Warm enough olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat, then add the minced onion, carrot, celery, parsley and crushed garlic (if using). Saute until until soft and translucent (about 8 to 10 minutes). Add salt, the potatoes and fry for a couple of minutes so the potatoes absorb the flavours of the minced vegetables and the oil. Add the hot vegetable or meat stock and bring to boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and leave to cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the potatoes have softened or, if you prefer a thicker soup, are falling apart. Taste for salt and add your chosen pasta to the pot. Cook, ensuring that you stir regularly, until perfectly al dente. Turn off heat and transfer your pasta and potato soup to a warm soup tureen, stir in some parmigiano-reggiano cheese, pepper and serve piping hot.