roasted vegetables and spelt spaghetti

roasted vegetables, spelt spaghetti, ricotta salada

I was inspired to make myself a bowl of pasta after I had lunch at a local restaurant and it left me feeling — disappointed.

The menu at this charming place offered the sort of casual, Italian-style fare everyone seems to like – wood-fired pizzas, homemade pasta, and salads made with locally grown produce.

I ordered the pasta special of the day, described as handmade whole wheat fettuccine with wood oven-roasted vegetables. Great!

I was hungry, and happily anticipated my lunch, thinking about homemade noodles with the rustic bite of whole grain and especially, the promise of a colorful assortment of vegetables kissed with some smoky char from the oven.

What arrived at my table was not at all like the picture I’d formed in my head. Turns out there was definitely a disconnect between what had been described and what was right there on the plate in front of me.

The “oven-roasted” vegetables were a small distribution of diced carrots that were a little on the crunchy side, and zucchini that was cooked to the point of army-green softness. They were embedded in a thick tomato sauce that covered the pasta so completely that I couldn’t tell if it was fresh whole wheat fettuccine or not. It tasted pretty good; homey and satisfying, Just not what I thought it would be.

I’m not in the business of reviewing restaurants, nor do I ever want to be – it makes me uncomfortable to be critical of another cook’s food. Cooking is all about feeding people, but it’s also a personal expression. One girl’s vegetable is another boy’s garnish.

For me, vegetables are the focal point of whatever I set out to eat or cook; the elements of the plate that give a cook the chance to use a beautiful variety of colors and textures; like an edible palette.

When I decided to recreate my version of that lunch, I set out for the produce section of my grocery store – there’s no farmer’s market at this point in a Midwestern winter.

spelt spaghetti with roasted vegetables

But I found a rainbow of vegetables there; sweet bell peppers in three different colors, red grape tomatoes and bright green zucchini.

I roasted the vegetables to pair with spelt spaghetti, a whole grain pasta that has a more delicate, nutty taste than some of the other whole grain kinds I’ve tried. Ricotta Salata cheese adds a creamy, slightly salty hit to the top of this spaghetti. Now, that’s what I’m talking about!

roasted vegetables with spelt spaghetti and ricotta salata

Yield: 2 - 4 servings


  1. 1 each – red, yellow and orange bell pepper
  2. 1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
  3. 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  4. Kosher salt
  5. 2 small zucchini, diced
  6. 1/2 cup Peppadew peppers, sliced in half
  7. ¼ cup Peppadew liquid
  8. Freshly ground black pepper
  9. 10 ounces spelt spaghetti
  10. ¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
  11. 1/3 cup crumbled Ricotta Salata cheese


  1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Cut the peppers into roughly 1 ½ - inch pieces. Toss the peppers on a large rimmed baking sheet along with the tomatoes, olive oil and ½ teaspoon salt.
  3. Roast until the edges of the peppers are deep golden brown, about 20 minutes. Stir them around, then add the zucchini to the peppers and roast 5 more minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve ¼ cup of the cooking water.
  5. When the vegetables are done, add the Peppadews, liquid and reserved pasta water and scrape everything around in the pan; season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Transfer the spaghetti to a serving bowl and top with the vegetables, parsley and cheese.

eggplant parm mac and cheese


Eggplants are to Sicilians what potatoes are to the Irish. – Fabrizia Lanza

However you personally define comfort food, somewhere down the line it all comes down to memories of being cooked for and fed before you were able to do so on your own. I can’t help guessing what would trigger my food cravings if I hadn’t grown up in the United States during the sixties and seventies, but rather in a completely different culture; like Japan or India.

Or, a hundred years ago in the areas of Italy where my ancestors lived.

Instead of the sweet, white and starchy things that my generation learned to want as kids (and probably what lots of 21st century ones do, too) my taste buds might have been formed by a another set of flavors and textures. And if I had been a child during my Italian ancestors’ time, those things would have been the stuff of peasant cooking; la cucina povera.


I’m drawn to those humble, earthy foods so completely that I wonder if it’s somehow coded in DNA. How else do I have a taste – and even a sense of nostalgia for – a way of eating and living I never experienced? A plain explanation must be just that it TASTES GOOD.  No matter the origins of any person’s family tree, we can all relate to satisfying our hungers with recipes that are grounded in peasant cooking.

I can’t know for sure that my great, great, great grandmothers prepared something similar to what Americans know as Eggplant Parmesan, but it’s safe to say that Neapolitans and Sicilians have definitely been eating eggplant, tomatoes and fresh cheeses like mozzarella for thousands of years.

I was thinking about my take on comfort food when the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board asked me to contribute a macaroni and cheese recipe to the blog 30 Days, 30 Ways with Macaroni and Cheese. Eggplant Parm plus any kind of pasta with cheese are right at the top of my list of favorites.

My everyday style of cooking doesn’t usually mean deep-frying, which is often a step in classic recipes. So I’ve come up with an oven-roasted method for crusty eggplant  – not exactly old school, but somehow it brings the old world and 21st century comfortably together.


eggplant parm mac and cheese

Serving Size: Serves a table of 6

I make my own marinara sauce, but feel free to use your favorite.


  1. 1 medium eggplant, ends trimmed; peeled
  2. 1 egg
  3. 1 teaspoon salt; plus more to taste
  4. ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  5. 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  6. 3 cups Italian-seasoned panko crumbs or bread crumbs
  7. Olive oil
  8. 2 tablespoons butter
  9. 2 tablespoons flour
  10. 2 cups whole milk
  11. ½ cup grated Asiago cheese
  12. 1 pound cooked pasta shells or spirals
  13. 1 cup marinara sauce
  14. 3/4 cup grated Fontina cheese


  1. Place a large rimmed baking sheet on an oven rack and turn oven to 450 degrees to preheat.
  2. Slice eggplant in half lengthwise and then into ½-inch wide half-moons.
  3. Whisk together egg, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper and garlic in a large bowl; add eggplant and toss to coat. Dredge eggplant in crumbs on a cookie sheet.
  4. Pour enough olive oil over the bottom of the preheated baking sheet to cover to a depth of 1/8-inch. Lay eggplant on pan and roast 10 minutes; flip eggplant slices over and roast an additional 10 minutes or until eggplant is tender and crust is golden. Lower oven temperature to 400 degrees.
  5. Meanwhile, heat a medium saucepan over moderate heat; add butter and heat until foaming subsides and butter is melted. Whisk in flour; cook 1 minute. Slowly pour in milk while whisking. Bring to a simmer; lower heat and cook 5 – 10 minutes, whisking occasionally, until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in Asiago cheese; season to taste with salt and pepper.
  6. Combine the pasta with the milk mixture and transfer to a large casserole or baking dish. Top with the eggplant, marinara and Fontina cheese. Bake 15 minutes, until hot and cheese is melted.

orecchiette cacio e pepe with parsnips

orecchiette, parsnips cacio e pepe recipe

When I first made classic pasta cacio e pepe – with cheese and pepper – I referred to a recipe by Mario Batali in Molto Gusto, which calls for 1/4 cup black pepper to sauce one pound of spaghetti.

Whoa, baby! I like it hot, but turns out that was too much pepper for me. It felt harsh; like my tongue was sweating and my throat burning like a white hot piece of smoldering charcoal.

While I was moving things around on my spice shelves in search of black pepper, an avalanche of other containers came raining down. I started to put everything back when my hand landed on a jar of green peppercorns. They’re such a pretty color, unlike the color you usually find in a basic black peppercorn, and I rarely find myself needing to put green peppercorns in anything.

Why not? It was one small Eureka! moment in a sea of not so many. I located some whole white pepper to make a trio of color, along with fennel seeds. The mix turned out much more palatable; perfect for the pasta I was planning to make with roasted parsnips.

parsnips-cacio e pepe-recipe

I love orecchiette pasta, “little ears’ in Italian. Their cute shape serves as a cup to hold whatever they’re sauced with; in this case chunks of crusty, caramelized parsnips in peppery-sharp, creamy sauce.

The fennel seeds in my peppercorn rainbow remind me a little of the crunchy pepper biscuits I find in bakeries when I visit home in Rhode Island. I’ve made taralli that came close to duplicating their flavor; minus the black pepper. I always find myself packing bags of pepper biscuits to take back with me, stashed in the freezer to tide me over until my next visit.

tre-pepe orecchiette-little ears

Cacio e pepe is a dish with deep roots in ancient Rome; the production of Pecorino Romano cheese dates back more than 2,000 years and black pepper was a commodity in the early days of the spice trade.

Fun fact: It’s said that Attila the Hun demanded over one ton of black pepper as ransom while he ransacked the city of Rome. You kind of get the feeling he’d have gladly tucked into a super-sized plate of spaghetti, seasoned with a pound of pepper. If only spaghetti had existed yet.


orecchiette cacio e pepe with parsnips

Serving Size: serves 4


  1. 2 or 3 small parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  2. 3 tablespoons olive oil
  3. Salt
  4. ½ pound orecchiette pasta
  5. 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  6. ½ teaspoon each whole green and white peppercorns (or use an additional teaspoon black pepper)
  7. 1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
  8. 2 tablespoons butter
  9. 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus additional for serving
  10. 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
  11. Lacinato or Tuscan kale leaves; about a handful, torn into pieces


  1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Put the parsnips on a rimmed baking sheet and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roast until tender and lightly browned, 15 -20 minutes.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add 1 or 2 tablespoons salt and the orecchiette; cook until al dente.
  4. While the pasta is cooking, put all the peppercorns in an electric spice or coffee grinder and pulse until coarsely ground (if you don’t have a coffee grinder dedicated to spices, crush the pepper in a manual pepper grinder or a mortar and pestle – it will build up some muscles).
  5. Place a large sauté pan over medium-high heat; when the pan is hot, add the peppercorns and whole fennel seeds and toast until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the butter and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir together until the butter melts, then remove from the heat.
  6. Drain the pasta, reserving 3/4 cup of the cooking water in a heatproof measuring cup. Add the pasta to the sauté pan along with the parsnips and both cheeses; toss it all together. Add some of the reserved water, a few tablespoons at a time, until the cheese melts into a creamy sauce; you might not use it all.
  7. Stir the kale leaves into the hot pasta to wilt them. Serve with additional cheese on the side.