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Mr. Mangini's Breaded Pasta

“How about breaded pasta? I feel like I haven’t made that in a while.”

“Excuse me? Breaded pasta? Yes, and what is it?!”

I must say here that I’m pretty lucky, for two obvious reasons. One, Frank will enthusiastically agree to any food suggestion I offer. Two, he’ll do it even before he knows what I’m talking about, and he’ll forgive me for my forgetfulness of keeping a recipe from him for the duration of our marriage. So three reasons, actually.

Breaded pasta walked into my life many years ago, and I have a sneaking suspicion that when it was first made for me, it may even have been on a whim. You see, food and I have ultimately been at odds now for the majority of my life. We’ve had a difficult path with many cratered roads along the way, and there will be more ahead from time to time. But back to the pasta. During high school, my good friend Maria’s house was just like my own – polished but homey with a parent always cooking something in the kitchen. Most anytime I was over, there was a meal. It could be a snack or a dinner or anything in between. In this instance, Maria’s dad was making dinner - rotelli and broccoli in olive oil and Parmigiano. And then. This happened. He reached into the cabinet, grabbed the Italian-style bread crumbs, and showered the pot with this amazingness of an idea. WHAT! Mind blown. A plate of pasta with bright florets, cheesy and crunchy and absolutely delicious. I don’t know if it was a last-minute extra to throw more heartiness my skeletal way (we’re talking about a man who would cook a full-on turkey dinner in July, Thanksgiving style, just because I was over), or if it was one of those cooking eureka moments. I’ve never forgotten this dish and have made it here and there, changing it up, tweaking it every so often for a new spin.

Apparently, though, I hadn’t made it in about four years, which is why Frank was looking at me in impatient wonderment. The great part about this meal is that it’s a perfect weeknight dinner. Super easy to prepare and a nice changeup from the norm. When you’re staring into the freezer and thinking, ‘how unoriginal, I’ll defrost boring chicken AGAIN,’ don’t do it! Shut the door to both the freezer and living a bland life.

Here’s how I made the latest version. I sautéed the seasoned shallot and fennel in olive oil until cooked through, then added minced garlic. While I normally throw garlic in at the last minute to prevent it from burning, for this dish I don’t mind the bitterness a few bites will bring. Then I added pork sausage, removed from its casing and crumbled, re-seasoned the pan and sprinkled in dried red pepper flakes. I let the sausage cook until it was crispy and caramelizing with a touch of butter. Meanwhile, I had blanched the broccoli* and made the pasta. Rigatoni or cavatelli would have been the better choice here in order to sop up as much sauce and crumbs into those tiny little curves, but angel hair was a quicker weeknight option. I made it a little eggier than usual because I needed an extra egg white or two to brine something for another meal.

Alright, time to get it all together. Angel hair literally takes about twenty seconds to cook, so it came out of the boiling water almost immediately and straight into the saucepan. I generously dressed it all with olive oil, Parmigiano, one last dash of salt and pepper and finally the bread crumbs. I used panko, simply because it was what I had in my pantry. As I dished it up, I decided to tear a few pieces of mozzarella** over the bowls, which was nearing its last legs. I served it with a salad of pickled radish and shallots, Napa cabbage and the fennel fronds with zingy vinaigrette.

Frank gave the breaded pasta his seal of approval, although the panko just didn’t hold up enough to the bold flavors. Next time, which will be sooner than four years out, I’ll be sure to have the old-school crumbs on hand.

*Blanching the broccoli florets in the same water you’re already boiling for the pasta is a timesaver. You’re only heating and cleaning one pot.

**Unless otherwise noted, mozzarella is always fresh, just how it should be.

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