As many of you know, for most of my adult life, two culinary traditions have been inextricably intertwined in my kitchen: the Southern cooking of my childhood, and the Italian cooking that made such a marked impact while I was studying architecture as a young adult.
Part of it is that the two cuisines (or, I should say, collections of cuisines) have so much in common. The cooks of the South's many cuisines, and those of Italy, especially Northern Italy, share so many of the same ingredients and approach them with a similar mindset, combining and building flavors in exactly the same way. Because of that, the blending of these cuisines in my kitchen has a natural logic.
At any rate, that blending has marked my cooking for nearly half a century. But it's been especially evident in the kind of simple, improvised cooking I've been doing during this time of pandemic quarantine. Take, for example, this pasta with yellow squash that was yesterday's evening meal.
Both Southerners and Italians frequently use cured pork to flavor vegetables. In the South, it's country ham, bacon, and pork cheek; in Italy, prosciutto, pancetta, and guanciale. Though the Southern counterparts tend to be smoked, they're correspondingly the same cuts of meat and are otherwise cured in exactly the same way.
Here in the South, yellow crookneck squash, which is to us what zucchini is to Italians, is often cooked with bacon. While zucchini is less frequently paired with pancetta, it's not unheard of, and since Italians often use squash to sauce pasta, it's a short jump to use a traditional Southern dish (yellow squash sautéed with bacon and onions) in the same way.
Pasta with Bacon and Squash
This took less than half an hour to prepare, including cleaning and preparing the vegetables, and it was a perfect supper for a cool-ish (for Savannah in May, anyway) evening.
2 medium yellow squash (each about 4-to-5 ounces)
3 medium scallions or other green onions
3 slices extra-thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into ¼-inch wide strips
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Raw sugar, optional (see step 3)
6 ounces fusilli, penne, or other short tubular pasta
2-to-4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Scrub the squash with a vegetable brush under cold running water and pat dry. Trim the stem and blossom ends and cut crosswise into 1-inch sections. Lay each section (round cut end flat) on the cutting surface and cut it into ¼-inch sticks. Wash, pat dry, and trim the scallions and thinly slice them, keeping the white and green parts separated.
2. Put 3 quarts of water on to boil in a heavy-bottomed 4-6 quart pot over medium high heat. Put the bacon in a seasoned iron or nonstick 10-inch skillet over medium heat and sauté until it is browned and its fat is rendered. Tip the pan and spoon off all but about 2 teaspoons of the fat and put in the white parts of the scallions. Sauté until they're translucent and softened but not colored, about 2 minutes.
3. Add the squash to the pan and toss it well. Season it with salt, pepper, and a couple of pinches of raw sugar if the squash aren't as fresh and sweet as you'd like. Sauté, stirring often, until they're tender and beginning to color, about 4-5 minutes. Add the green parts of the scallions, stir, and remove the pan from the heat.
4. When the water is boiling, stir in a small handful of salt and the pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, using the package directions as a rough guide for the cooking time. When it's almost done, reheat the squash over medium-low heat and when the pasta is ready, drain and add it to the pan. Turn off the heat, toss to mix, and quickly divide it among 2 pasta bowls or soup plates. Serve at once, passing freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano separately.