Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Hip New TV Dinner

There seems to be two basic philosophies to pasta.

In one, it is sort of the hip new TV dinner (new being a relative term). Everything is there. Carbs, protien, veggies, cheese. In one convenient 'package'. Well, maybe the little square dessert is missing. But in general, the point seems to be to add things until all the bases are covered.

Now – I’m all for pasta. Even elaborate pastas, with sauces and meats and chunky things embedded in them, slathered in cheeses. Even though the point of the pasta – i.e. a prelude to the main meal – is completely lost.

It’s convenient. It can be very tasty, healthy too, sometimes. So what’s not to like?

So today, I made one. Sort of made up, based very loosely on a recipe I found on the Emeril Web site. I adapted the ingredients to match what was available, and what people here would actually eat. Then I added some things to make a complete dinner. Round out the nutritional and caloric edges, so to speak.

And it was good! Hot (spicy), full of flavor, plenty of everything except fat. Everyone loved it.

Except me.

I mean, I liked it, and appreciated the convenience of having the meal done in a single course, and you felt good about eating something so healthy. And the cleanup was moderate as well.

But a few days ago, I had made a different kind of pasta. A simpler pasta.

I am certainly no Luddite. But when it comes to food, simple can be good.

And not necessarily easier to make. A pasta with everything and the kitchen sink thrown in has a lot of room to cover mistakes. Who could taste everything? It’s usually a muddled mess of flavors.

But a simple pasta, with just four ingredients – olive oil, garlic, parsley and peperoncino – has no room for errors. You can taste immediately that something is out of proportion, or missing, or burned. There’s nowhere to hide.

You don’t usually find it on the menu in Italian restaurants – Spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino. I went all over the world asking italian restaurants if they would make it for me. Most did. Some refused. Of those who did, the results were so varied, it was hard to believe we were all talking about the same dish. Some came out soupy – pasta floating in oily pasta water. Some had tomatoes and basil. Some had no sharp peperoncino flavor. Some had burned garlic.

But the ones who did it well, they did everything else well. It seemed you could tell that a chef (or chef’s assistant, most likely), who would take the time to do such a simple pasta well would also take the time to do most everything else well.

So I got to know the bordello red walls and tight tables of the one who did it best. With the funky art work for sale on the walls. With their odd collection of artists, performers, and wannabes swilling grappa and filling the air with thick cigarette smoke. And with the waiters who ALWAYS got me a table, no matter how full it was (and it was always full). Till 3am (another big selling point!). Waiters from Sicily and Calabria, whose fluency in the language of the country in which the restaurant was located ebbed and waned depending on how rude the customer was.

So a few nights ago, I made some Spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino as a first course for dinner. Everyone else enjoyed it, but only as a prelude to the dinner.

But I really savored it. It’s been so long since I’ve had a really good one. I’d almost forgotten how good it was – how the simple combination of flavors, in the right proportions, cooked slowly till just the right point, how that could taste so good. To me, it was the highlight of the evening.

Spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino

1 bunch italian parsley, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 peperoncino, minced
5-7 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for garnish
1 lb spaghetti
Optional - Pecorino, grated for garnish

Cook spaghetti in boiling, salted water.

While spaghetti is cooking, heat olive oil in a sauté pan. Over medium low heat, gently brown garlic and peperoncino, stirring often. Do not let burn.

When spaghetti is cooked, drain well, and toss immediately in sauté pan with garlic and peperoncino. Toss well to coat with oil. Pout into large, warmed serving bowl. Add parsley, and additional olive oil to taste. Toss well Serve immediately. Enjoy!

Panko-Crusted Chicken and Penne with Roasted Fingerling Ragu
Very loosely adapted from a recipe courtesy

24 fingerling potatoes, sliced in half (or quarters if large) the long way
½ cup red wine
olive oil
1 cup flour
1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs
2 eggs
3 cooked chicken breast halves, cut into slices
2-3 tablespoon Creole seasoning, recipe follows
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 poblano chili, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
8 plum tomatoes, quartered or two 32 ounce can of whole tomatoes, drained
4 cloves garlic, minced (I actually used 1 head of spring garlic, minced)
16 ounce container ricotta cheese
1 pound penne pasta, cooked al dente

Heat olive oil in a frying pan until hot. Add potatoes, and roast over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until cooked through and well browned. Remove to a plate and reserve. Deglaze pan with red wine and reserve.

Place flour in shallow dish. Place panko in a separate shallow dish. Beat eggs and place in another shallow dish. Sprinkle chicken slices with Creole seasoning. Dredge chicken slices in the flour and shake off excess. Dredge chicken slices in eggs and shake off excess. Dredge chicken slices in panko and press so panko adheres.

Lay chicken slices in a single layer on a parchment paper lined baking pan. Broil until browned on one side, turn, and broil on other side until browned. Remove to a plate.

In another sauté pan, add olive oil and heat. Add onions and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Add peppers, tomatoes, garlic and deglazed wine from potatoes and cook for about 10 minutes. Add pasta to the pan and toss for 2 minutes.

Pour vegetable mixture into a large pasta bowl. Top with chicken slices and tablespoons of ricotta cheese and serve. Enjoy!

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