Thursday, April 8, 2010

Scarpetta's Spaghetti

I was thinking of calling this post "Pasta Disaster 2.0" but it wasn't a total disaster - the dish turned out really well. But again, it was a battle between me and the pasta dough, and the pasta dough nearly won. Let me start from the beginning.

This week's new episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations was simply called "Techniques" - instead of traveling to an exotic international location and eating the local cuisine, Tony (and some other chefs) gave lessons on the basics of cooking. Tony made a beef bourguignon, Jacques Pepin made an omelet, Thomas Keller made a roast chicken (the same recipe I use!), and Scott Conant of Scarpetta made spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil. There were also a couple other chefs/dishes. If I were going on the Food Network show The Best Thing I Ever Ate, I would talk about Scarpetta's spaghetti with tomato and basil. It's such a simple dish but done so perfectly. Fresh pasta, just enough sauce to coat the spaghetti, fresh basil, and a little parmesan cheese.

Naturally, I was really excited to see the dish prepared on tv. Peter was watching me watch this, and he said "you're going to try to make this, aren't you..." Yup. I wish there was video of Scott Conant making the dish, but there's no clip on the Travel Channel website. There is a written recipe, but it differs slightly from how he made it on the show. I decided to follow his instructions from the demonstration rather than the recipe. He didn't talk at all about the pasta, just the sauce. So I consulted my dad on homemade pasta, again, and tried to make it, again. Disaster. Enough explanation, here goes.

20 plum or roma tomatoes
1/2 cup olive oil, plus a few tablespoons
10-12 basil leaves, half of cut into a chiffonade
8-10 cloves garlic
1-2 Tbl. unsalted butter
freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
crushed red pepper

Bring a large pot of water to boil, and add salt. Cut a small, not very deep X into the bottom of the each tomato. Prepare a bowl of ice water. Cook the tomatoes in the boiling water for about 30 seconds to a minute. Watch for the X on the bottom to start to separate and the skin to start to peel away a little. Transfer the tomatoes to the ice water to stop the cooking. I did the tomatoes about 2 or 3 at a time.

Peel the skin off all the tomatoes. You may have to use a small knife to get some of it off. Cut two small incisions in each side of each tomato and scoop out the seeds and guts with your finger. You don't have to get every last bit out, but most of it. Use the same big pot that had water in it, and heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add the tomatoes and a big pinch of salt. Let the tomatoes cook for about 10 minutes or so, then start to mash them up with a potato masher. The tomatoes should cook for about 40 minutes total, and should have a smooth consistency.

About halfway through the tomato cooking, heat a small saucepan with about 1/2 cup of olive oil. Add half the basil leaves (you can put the whole stem in), a big pinch of crushed red pepper, and the garlic cloves. Let everything infuse into the oil, cooking for about 10 minutes. Strain the olive oil into the tomato mixture.

2 cups flour
4 eggs

Combine ingredients in a bowl with a fork, or in a mixer with the hook attachment. Add a little more flour if the dough is too sticky, or a bit of water if it's dry. Form the dough into a ball.

My pasta machine is a hand crank, not the kind you attach on a mixer. I think this kind is the best, and they are inexpensive. There's a lot of different ones on Amazon.

I started rolling out the dough...

And that's where I'm going to stop. I guess my dough was still too sticky and I should have added more flour, because once I flattened it enough and started to put it through the spaghetti cutting crank, things took a turn for the worse. It got all stuck in there wouldn't cut. I tried sticking the dough in the freezer for a couple minutes to firm it up. Still wouldn't work. Just like last time I tried to make pasta, I considered throwing all the dough and the machine off the balcony.

So I don't really feel qualified to give any instructions on how to do this. I ended up cutting the spaghetti by hand, which was a HUGE pain. It was actually fettucine because I did not have the patience to cut the noodles any smaller. In the end it was totally fine and tasted great, but was way too time consuming since I couldn't get it through the crank. Anyway, if you decide to give this process a try, you only have to cook the pasta for a minute or two. Barely.

As the pasta cooks, heat up a medium skillet with a little olive oil. Cook the pasta about 75% and put one serving in the skillet with some sauce, a little less than a tablespoon of unsalted butter, a small pinch of crushed red pepper, some grated cheese, and some of the chopped basil (for a chiffonade stack the leaves up, roll them up, and cut slices so you have long strips). Toss everything gently in the pan to combine all the ingredients. Scott Conant described it by saying the sauce should be like it's part of the pasta. And that's it!

Other than the pasta dough problems, the dish was easy. But I really think that the two things that make this dish are the homemade pasta, and the butter. If you don't want to make homemade pasta (and I don't blame you), definitely buy fresh pasta. It makes a world of difference. And the butter - I had never put butter into a pasta and tomato sauce dish, but it really made everything adhere and added just a little bit of creaminess. The other key is getting the tomato sauce to be a smooth consistency. If I had an immersion blender I would have used it, but just make sure you keep mashing the tomatoes to get all the big pieces broken up. I will definitely do the skillet/butter method again, that's where the dish really came together.

So...did it taste like the Scarpetta dish? I think in general, it was similar. It certainly didn't look as pretty. It did taste really good. But who was I kidding..did I really think I would be able to replicate the best thing I ever ate?

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