It’s not always easy for two cooks to coexist peacefully in one kitchen. A neighbor of mine, a well-regarded French chef, lets his partner’s Thai cooking rule at home. In other households, I’ve seen South Indian cuisine prevail over British cooking, and regional southern cooking win out over midwestern fare. Those who share a kitchen with an Italian cook, well, they had better love Italian food.
From the first time Hugo cooked dinner for me — a simple linguine alla marinara with a plate of white beans — I accepted this as fact.
Occasionally, I provided an Italian dish learned on travels, but Hugo cooked most nights, and all was delightful. Who wouldn’t want a personal chef?
Eventually, though, I did yearn for a childhood favorite or two. When I broached the idea, Hugo looked distinctly alarmed.
“Actually, I was thinking about escarole soup tonight.” I remember him saying that as if it were yesterday. Whenever I revisited the subject, he was already “thinking about” tortellini, peppers and sausage, osso buco, gnocchi, chicken with tomatoes and fontina, or meatballs.
Finally, I decided to forge ahead with chicken and dumplings. Hugo hovered near the stove, asking about each step. “Would there be tomato in the sauce?” No. “Any herbs?” Give it a chance, I thought, and quickly improvised: “Oh yes, fresh dill and chive in the dumplings, plus onion, thyme, black pepper and mustard in the sauce.” These turned out to be definite improvements over the original family recipe, and Hugo said he loved it.
Next, I tried braised pork with sauerkraut and apples. And a good splash of Calvados — which was not something you’d find in my grandmother’s larder.
Deciding not to press my luck, I waited to see if he would ask for one of my specialties again. I’d say we now have an 80-percent Italian, 20-percent updated-Pennsylvania-farmhouse kitchen. Our only real disputes are about salt. He uses too much of it. Hugo’s view: “food must be properly seasoned.”
For Valentine’s Day, we usually cook together. It’s always Italian. This year, possibly because Hugo knew I planned to write about our day in the kitchen, he suggested I make one of my family dishes. The trouble was, I could not think of anything I craved more than his pink shrimp sauce with pasta, a dish he started making at home after we had it in Italy.
It’s romantic, in my mind, at least: we first tasted it together on a terrace overlooking Lake Maggiore. It’s also practical: it relies on pantry basics and frozen shrimp with excellent results.
My part in this dinner will be to steam some greens and drizzle them with balsamic vinegar and a little oil. And Hugo usually looks to me to come up with dessert. Reviewing childhood sweets, I couldn’t think of one that would complement the Italian soul of this dinner. Gingerbread and apple pie were completely out of the question as was strawberry shortcake.
I will make what I make every year: rum chocolate ricotta. Happy Valentine’s Day, Hugo.
Pasta with Pink Shrimp Sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 pound peeled raw shrimp (fresh or frozen and thawed)
8 ounces linguine, spaghetti, or small seashells
1/3 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
optional: 2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley or chives for the garnish
- Set a large pot of water to boil for the pasta while preparing the sauce.
- Place oil and garlic in a small sauté pan or saucepan and cook gently over medium-low heat until the garlic softens, about 3 minutes.
- In a small bowl, stir tomato paste into the wine until it dissolves and add this mixture to the sautéed garlic. Raise the heat to medium high and cook for a couple of minutes before adding the shrimp.
- Add the shrimp and cook just until they turn pink and opaque, about two minutes, and remove pan from heat. Remove 4 shrimp to a plate and set aside for serving. If the shrimp are large, remove only 2 and slice them in half lengthwise.
- Once the water boils, add a big pinch of salt and the pasta, cooking for about 6-8 minutes, while finishing the sauce.
- Puree the remaining shrimp in the blender or food processor until finely minced and return them to the wine sauce. Stir in the cream, season with salt and pepper, and gently heat the sauce until very hot but not bubbling. If it seems too thin, stir and reduce a little longer.
- Test the pasta for doneness, drain it, and return the pasta to the pot. Stir in the sauce to coat the pasta well. When plating, place a whole shrimp on top of each serving, and sprinkle with minced parsley or chives or a grind of black pepper.
Rum Chocolate Ricotta
Serves 2 to 4
8 oz. ricotta cheese (or farmer’s cheese, 7.5 oz package)
4 tsp. cocoa powder
4 tsp. honey
2 Tbsp. rum
optional: 2 Tbsp. whipped cream to garnish
- Place all ingredients (except the whipped cream) in a food processor or blender and combine until the mixture becomes silken and glossy. Scrape any lumpy ricotta down into the bowl and blend again. If it’s too thick to spoon out, add a teaspoon of rum or water and blend once more.
- Spoon the ricotta into small dessert dishes and chill 20 minutes to overnight. To serve, add a dab of whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder.