Orecchiette alla Norcina (pasta in a sausage, herb, and mushroom cream sauce)

My friend and coworker Aryanna walked into work a few weeks ago declaring that she had just eaten the most incredible pasta dish at an event she attended. It was a creamy sausage pasta and she was drying to figure out how to make it again.

"Alejandra, you have to help me!"



We talked about it a bit and she told me the dish was called "orecchiette all norcina," which led me down a Google path in search of more information.

This creamy comfort dish originated in the Italian village of Norcia, located in the southeastern part of the Umbrian region of Italy. Norcia is legendary for its black truffles, pork, and wild boar products, particularly sausage, and to this day pork products in Italy are referred to as "norcineria."

The sauce reflects these regional flavors with tiny bite-size pieces of sausage and pasta in a rich cream  and mushroom sauce. It's the sort of dish that's perfect for a rainy evening, or even for lunch on one of those days when you need a little something extra to get you through the rest of the day.

I added one major twist to my version--cremini mushrooms. The version my friend told me about didn't have mushrooms, but I had a package in my fridge and knew they would pair nicely with the other ingredients.  As the Umbrian region is also known for its truffles and mushrooms, I didn't think the additional earthy flavors would be out of place.

I chopped them up coarsely and absolutely loved how they seemed to melt right into the dish. I infused the sauce with fresh rosemary and nutmeg,  and added red chili flakes for heat--all of which gave the rich cream sauce a layer of depth that kept me going back for more.

I use orecchiette in this dish because it's the pasta Aryanna had described, and I love the way each of the little bowls (orecchiette actually means "little ears" in Italian) scoop up the sauce for a perfect bite every time. If you prefer, you can of course substitute any kind of pasta you'd like--try it with rigatoni or penne.




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Orecchiette all Norcina (pasta with sausage, herb, and mushroom cream sauce)

Ingredients
8oz orecchiette pasta (or other small pasta such as rigatoni or penne)
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive or grapeseed oil
1/2 pound hot Italian pork sausage (substitute mild or turkey sausage, if you prefer)
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
8oz cremini mushrooms, cleaned and coarsely chopped
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (skip if you prefer less heat; use more if you'd like a lot of spice)
1 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt and add pasta. Cook until al dente (about 10 minutes). Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water.

While the pasta cooks, remove the sausage from casings and break up into small pieces. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy pan over medium heat and add the sausage. Cook for 2 minutes until lightly browned.

Add the onions and garlic cloves, saute together for 3 minutes until fragrant and soft (you don't want to caramelized the onions). Add the chopped mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes or until cooked down and any liquid has reduced.

Add the cream, rosemary, nutmeg, and red pepper. Let the sauce cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the cooked pasta and the cheese and toss to coat evenly. If sauce is too thick, add some of the reserved pasta water. Season with Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste. Serve immediately.

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