As the first Italian immigrants came mostly from Southern Italy, Americans' idea of Italian cooking tends toward southern Italian cuisine. But Italian cuisine is as varied as its regions, and there are 20 of them. In the north, where I come from, we do not use as much tomatoes and so our sauces are not always red.
If you want to taste a different Italy, try this simple pasta recipe. You will need:
A pound of pasta, preferably linguine, but fettuccine, or even spaghetti will do fine. Avoid tubes or shells because the ham will hide in there.
Three nice leeks,
Half a pound of diced ham,
A pint of heavy whipped cream,
half a teaspoon of nutmeg.
Enough butter to coat the pan.
Only two ingredients require preparation before cooking, and you can reduce the count to one. You must prepare the leeks. Leeks grow in the mud, so they must be cleaned. Cut off the green tops and the roots and discard. You end up with a white column that you cut into cylinders that are about one to one and half inches tall. Then you proceed to divide the cylinders into ribbons. I do that by cutting the leek in half, and then in quarters always, of course length wise. It is hard to do because you are cutting something that is not flat, so use a good knife.
When you have the sections take them apart, one layer at the time so that you can wash them and separate the mud from the part you are going to eat. I use a colander to do this, but you can also use a pot full of water. In the pot the mud particles will sink to the bottom, while in the colander you can use your hands to agitate the leeks under running cold water and let the mud fall through the holes.
You can either dice a ham slice in small pieces, about 1/8" on the side. Or you can buy ham already diced. I find it in vacuum sealed packages at the market.
Now, put the butter in a heavy deep saucepan and melt it. Then put in the leeks and sauté them over medium heat. Cook stirring a few times for about 20 minutes or so, until the leeks are soft. It may take up to thirty minutes, it just depends, every stove is different and I am sure you already know that a gas stove and an electric stove behave quite differently.
In the mean time boil the water for the pasta. If you have pasta that takes about 10 minutes to reach the al dente state, the last steps of the recipe are done simultaneously. Else proceed asynchronously.
For the sauce pour the cream in and add the nutmeg. I know that grating the nut fresh is better, but it will cook so I use the one already grated in the jar. Carefully stir to insure a uniform sauce.
When the pasta water is boiling add the salt. Pasta is always cooked in salt water. Do not be afraid, add a handful of course salt to the pot. If you want to insure that the pasta will come out just right then use my grandmother method. After you have salted the water, throw an extra pinch of salt in the water to ward off the devil. It worked for her, and it has worked for me so far…
I know that most cookbooks tell you to mix the sauce with the drained pasta in the same pot in which you cooked the pasta. I never do. I always mix the sauce and the pasta in a serving dish. So you have one extra dish to wash: this is one reason to have a dishwasher: machine or human. Notice that I do not mix in the cheese at this point. I firmly believe that each individual has his or her own taste when it comes to how much cheese goes on the pasta: So pass the cheese around at the table and let each of the diners take part in the final preparation. By the way, you do not need to use the real parmigiano reggiano, I know it is expensive. Regular parmesan will do, but at times it is nice to eat well.
Ciao and buon appetito.