I never had this pasta dish growing up nor did I eat it when I lived in Italy. I did, however, discover it in an Italian cookbook. After much translating and tweaking of that original recipe, I came up with this one. And I have to say, I love it. I really do. It’s hearty but not too heavy. It’s slightly sweet from the red wine and yet balanced with red and black pepper. With the addition of olive oil rather than cheese or cream, this vegan pasta dish has an almost luscious quality to it. Because the onions are not caramelized, they retain a bit of a bite which means two things: great texture and it doesn’t take that long to cook!
This recipe makes four servings.
3 TBS extra virgin olive oil plus more for garnish
1 large red onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced
½ tsp dried oregano plus a pinch
¼ tsp red pepper flakes plus a pinch
½ TBS brown sugar (I prefer dark brown sugar but use what you like)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup red wine (I use Cabernet Sauvignon)
¼ cup dried bread crumbs (I use panko but you can use fine breadcrumbs seasoned or not; your preference)
½ pound (about 2 cups) dried short pasta (I use penne but use what you like)
1 TBS salt
Because the sauce cooks quickly, start it only a few minutes before you cook the pasta.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil (it boils faster if you cover the pot with a lid). Remove the lid and add the 1 TBS of salt. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions but one minute shy of al dente (“to the tooth”; in other words, “not mushy).
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet on medium heat. Add the olive oil and the onions. Cook for one minute. Add a pinch of salt and black pepper. Stir in the garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and brown sugar. Cook for 5 – 6 minutes or until the onions are translucent and a bit wilted but still have a bite. Carefully add the wine and stir it into the onions. Cook for one minute.
Push the onions to the edge of the pan creating a well in the center of the pan. You may need to add a drizzle of oil. Add the bread crumbs and brown them quickly; it usually takes no more than a minute. Once the bread crumbs are browned, stir them into the onion mixture.
Meanwhile, reserve one cup of pasta water. Drain the pasta and set aside.
Starting with ¼ cup of the pasta water, add it to the onion mixture to thin it out. Add a pinch of salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and dried oregano. Add the pasta to the skillet and carefully incorporate it into the sauce. You may need to add more pasta water and if you do, you may not need to use the entire cup.
Cook the pasta with the onion sauce for one minute. Check for seasoning and add more salt, pepper, and red pepper if necessary. Carefully pour the pasta out onto a serving dish. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.
Don’t Freak Out!
1) You can make this pasta with white onions and white wine instead. At various times, I’ve tried this with Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, and sweet Vermouth. They’re all good; I just prefer the red onions and red wine combination.
2) Make it gluten-free. Substitute high-quality gluten-free pasta. I do recommend using a penne or other larger tube shape; smaller gluten-free pastas like elbows can turn mushy quickly. For the breadcrumbs, you can find gluten-free breadcrumbs at the market or on-line. Or make your own by drying out or toasting gluten-free bread and pulsing it in a food processor. If you toast the gluten-free bread for crumbs, there is no need to brown the crumbs in the oil. Just add it to the onion mixture and proceed with the recipe as written. You can also crumble gluten-free crackers or pretzels instead. As far as the wine goes, most wine is already gluten-free but if you have Celiac disease (CD) or other health concerns regarding gluten, contact the manufacturer before purchasing and consuming any wine.
3) This dish can stand as an entrée on its own with a simple salad as a side. However, roasted chicken, chicken cutlets, broiled pork chops, or pork cutlets would work well with it.
4) Make it cheesy. The original recipe did not call for cheese and as much as I like cheese, I actually prefer this pasta without it. But if I were going to add cheese, I think salty hard cheeses would do the trick. Think parmesan, pecorino, ricotta salata, or even a bit of crumbled feta.