My Uncle Vinnie was one of the coolest guys I ever knew. He worked for the New York City Department of Sanitation. He was a “garbage man”, and when I was a little girl, I wanted to be just like him. He got to ride up and down the streets all day, hanging onto the outside of a big truck. He got to wear a nifty uniform that didn’t involve plaid jumpers or navy blue oxfords. He got to get as dirty as he wanted, and didn’t have to wash his hands every five minutes. And, he got to cart home all kinds of loot that he’d found on his route.
And, don’t you even think for a minute that because my uncle was a sanitation worker he didn’t have a keen mind and a sharp wit – because he did. He was more well-read and up on current events than almost any other adult I knew. You could talk to him about anything, from politics to opera, and he would always come up with some nugget of information that no one had ever known before.
Uncle Vinnie and my Aunt Yolanda didn’t have any children back then. When my cousins and I were kids, we would all take turns spending the weekends over at their house. It was great for our parents, because they got to get us out of their hair for a few days. It was great for us kids, because Uncle Vinnie and Aunt Yolanda were a fun young couple. They were groovy. They were hip. They played bossa nova records on their old Zenith console.
Spending time at my aunt and uncle’s house was a little like Christmas. There were always some brand new, still in the box toys, games, books, records and other assorted “treasures” to sift through. Seriously, I’m talking about merchandise still sealed with the store tags on! I can remember asking Uncle Vinnie why people would buy perfectly good things and then throw them away without even opening them. I mean, even if they were unwanted gifts, you could still give them away or donate them to charity. He would smile and say “People are funny. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
I was reminded of that phrase as I was preparing this Pasta con le Regaglie. At first glance, it looks like a lovely bowl of pasta dressed with a rich, chunky, meaty sauce. And, that is exactly what it is. Except, that the meats in question are chicken livers, gizzards and hearts. That’s right – livers, gizzards and hearts- better known as offal and more delicately referred to as giblets. And, do you know what? They are delicious! Now, before you click away in horror, hear me out.
People didn’t always buy their meat in plastic containers covered with shrink wrap. Once upon a time, people actually raised their own chickens, cows and pigs. And, those who didn’t probably bought their meat from those who did. Back then, it was unthinkable to waste any part of an animal that was edible. Most people couldn’t afford to! So a lot of diligent home cooks came up with creative and tasty ways to use offal or giblets or whatever you want to call them. Even today, in many cultures, these foods are commonly eaten, and enjoyed with gusto.
In Italy, this concept of cooking and eating is called “cucina povera” or “cooking of the poor”. Cucina povera was a natural progression resulting from the devastation of two world wars and the shortage of food they created in their aftermath. It was born of necessity and relied on the use of every bit of every ingredient from the garden, barnyard, woods and sea, with as little waste as possible.
I remember my father telling me how, as a boy in occupied Italy during World War 2, one of his most vivid memories was that of being hungry. He lived on a farm in the countryside about halfway between Anzio and Monte Cassino. As the Nazis infiltrated the area, they took over all of the crops and livestock, using them to feed their troops. The families who lived there were turned out and basically lived in the woods for the duration. Dad recounted how they would forage for food, often rooting through the garbage in the dead of night, looking for things that could still be used to fill their bellies. They would often take corn cobs, grind them up and cook them down with water to make a kind of gruel. Can you imagine? What a compelling example of how one man’s trash is indeed another man’s treasure! Even fifty years later, whenever he would talk about it, the look of pain and sadness in my father’s eyes spoke volumes more than any words ever could.
Pasta con le Regaglie is a dish that my grandmother used to make, just as I’m sure her grandmother did before her. It is common to the area that my family comes from as many of the families there raise chickens. It was also a dish that my father always enjoyed. Pasta con le Regaglie, or Pasta with Giblets, is a very hearty and rustic “povera” dish packed with lots of great flavors. In addition to the giblets, it also contains all of the other ingredients that make up a great pasta sauce- tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, garlic, herbs and spices. If you didn’t know that the giblets were in there too, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. And, even if you could, the dish is so good, you wouldn’t care.
The most challenging part of preparing the regaglie sauce is cleaning and trimming the giblets, especially the gizzards. I won’t lie. Cleaning the gizzards is a pain in the a$$! You need to trim off all of the tough outer membranes and peel off any silver skin before cutting them into small chunks. It’s tedious, but you can do it. I have confidence in you.
Once your giblets are ready to go, you can begin cooking. I’ve used pancetta in my version of the sauce, because I wanted to fancy it up a little. You don’t have to. I’m pretty sure that my ancestors prepared this dish without it.
First, sauté the pancetta. Then make a battuto with the onions, carrots and celery. A battuto is the Italian version of a mirepoix, and is the base for many, if not most Italian dishes. Add the giblets and cook for a while. Sauté in some mushrooms, garlic and fresh herbs, splash in some red wine and cook it down until the wine has reduced.
Next, thin some tomato paste with more red wine and add it to the pot with chicken stock and crushed tomatoes. Finally, simmer the sauce for a good, long time until it is thick and rich.
You can serve this robust regaglie sauce over pasta, rice or polenta – or just with a crusty loaf of Italian bread. I used a nice spinach fettuccine. Doesn’t it look wonderful? I can assure you – it is!
So please, please, please don’t be put off by offal. At least try it before you decide it’s “trash” You might be pleasantly surprised to find that Pasta con le Regaglie is actually quite a “treasure”! I think so. My dad thought so. And, my Uncle Vinnie did too. I wish I could have shared some with them.
Pasta con le Regaglie (Pasta with Giblets)
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra if needed
1/2 cup diced pancetta
1 large sweet onion, finely diced
1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced.
1 stalk celery, finely diced
2 pounds chicken hearts, gizzards and livers, rinsed and trimmed of tough tissue and silver skin, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
1 bay leaf
3-4 fresh sage leaves
3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 cups red wine
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups chicken stock
1 28 ounce can crushed Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano cheese
Heat the oil in a heavy 6-quart pot over medium heat. Add the pancetta and saute for a few minutes until the fat begins to render. Add the onions, carrots and celery and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 8-10 minutes, or until they begin to brown. Add the hearts, gizzards and liver and sauté them for about 10 minutes, also stirring occasionally. Add a little more oil if the pot gets too dry.
Stir the mushrooms, garlic, parsley, bay leaf and sage into the pot and sauté another 2 to 3 minutes.
Add 1 cup of the wine to the pot. Deglaze by scraping up any brown bits on the bottom. Raise heat and bring wine to a boil. Continue to boil until wine is reduced by half.
Whisk the rest of the wine and tomato paste together in a small bowl. Add to the pot along with the stock and crushed tomatoes. Bring up to a boil and then reduce down to medium heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 hour, until the sauce has reduced and is nice and thick.
Add salt, pepper and grated cheese to taste.
Serve either with a loaf of crusty Italian bread, or over pasta, rice or polenta.