Smoked Mozzarella & Kale Pasta

This is a story of obsessive trial and error. Basically, I spent this summer returning again and again to one dish, doing major edits and frustrated minor tweaks. That dish? A way to make dark greens more palatable by mixing them into a creamy pasta dish.

It started with a pile of arugula, thanks to our garden and our CSA. I envisioned a nutty, whole wheat pasta, toasted walnuts, tangy goat cheese, and barely wilted arugula. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough goat cheese so the pasta ended up being dry overall, and although it looked pretty and tasted okay, John declared that it needed a bottom note. His suggestion? Bacon or something smoky. I went back to the drawing board.

Take 2: Major overhaul of the original plan. Instead of arugula, I had kale and rainbow chard to work with, heartier greens than delicate, peppery arugula. I took John’s suggestion about a smoky flavor to heart, but instead of bacon, I had thick cut pancetta which is not smoked. To add that bit of smoke, I turned to smoked mozzarella for the cheese sauce, cutting its intensity with a bit of shredded nutty and slightly sweet fontina. The problem this time? I was pressed for time and instead of taking the time to slowly melt cheese into a bechamel sauce, I… (*cringe* foodie gods, please forgive me) tried adding the cheese and cream to my sautéed greens like you would do making creamed spinach. Oh no, was that a bad idea. The cheese wouldn’t incorporate into the sauce so I ended up with a gloppy, chewy chunk of greens.

But the smoked mozzarella was genius. It paired so nicely with the woody dark greens. I decided that I had a good base to work with, I just needed to improve my method. In other words, I needed to take the time to make a proper cheese sauce. Take 3 doesn’t count– I was in New Hampshire working with ingredients on hand including a maple smoked cheddar instead of the smoked mozzarella, but I did get a good lesson from making tweaks to the dish with Rich that I tend to ignore adding acid to my food. That version was made more decent with lots of chipotle Tabasco sauce and diced heirloom tomatoes. But Take 4? Perfection at last. I went back to the formula of ingredients from Take 2 and had a hearty dish of smooth and creamy pasta; delicious, dark and spicy greens; crispy, salty pancetta; and an underlying note of smoke. If you’re overwhelmed with fall greens, do me a favor and try this dish. It’ll make a summer’s worth of work worth it.

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 8 oz smoked mozzarella, shredded
  • 8 oz fontina cheese, shredded
  • 1 lb whole wheat penne pasta, cooked according to package directions
  • olive oil
  • 3 oz pancetta, chopped
  • 1 large bunch of Lacinato kale, leaves removed from stems and chopped, stems discarded
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • salt and pepper

In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter over medium low heat. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk until combined. Continue whisking while roux cooks for about 1 to 1.5 minutes. Whisk in milk and turn up heat to medium high. Whisk continuously until sauce thickens, about 5-6 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and slowly add in cheese, adding about a handful at a time and stirring with a wooden soon until completely incorporated before adding in more cheese. Keep sauce on low heat while you cook the greens.

In a large skillet, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until crisped, about 7-10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pancetta to a paper towel lined plate to drain. Pour off excess fat, leaving about 1 tablespoon left in the skillet. Add the garlic and the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the chopped kale and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Stir in nutmeg and season with salt and pepper to taste. Combine the cooked pasta with the kale and pour in the cheese sauce, mixing until thoroughly combined. Plate the pasta, sprinkled with some of the pancetta as garnish.

CSA Count: 1

Lacinato kale (of course, if you take in previous attempts then this would also include arugula and rainbow chard.)

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