This 15-Minute Pasta Will Make You Feel Like an Italian Millionaire

Thank you to Ligaya Mishan and The NY Times for this weekend treat. Recipe is at the bottom of this article. Yummy!~

“My father was an Englishman who left Liverpool, his rainy hometown, and settled in sunny Honolulu, where he nevertheless complained that his feet were always cold. In the kitchen, he kept a reminder of his birthright: a dark, skinny-necked bottle of Worcestershire sauce. For years, I knew it only as Lea & Perrins, the name of its maker. (The company, founded in 1837, is now a subsidiary of Kraft Heinz, the fifth-largest food and beverage company in the world.)

As the cook in the family, my father massaged drops of that thin brown sauce into hamburgers and meatballs, giving them a faint, briny funk. In 1908, the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda isolated the source of this taste as L-glutamate, an amino acid, and called the flavor umami. The rest of the world ignored this discovery until, in 2002, scientists identified specially dedicated glutamate receptors in the mouth, confirming umami as one of the primary tastes.

My father was an exacting eater and suspicious of certain ingredients. (Cilantro above all he despised.) But I don’t think he ever inspected the label on that Lea & Perrins bottle, which would have revealed to him the presence of fermented glutamate-rich anchovies, a food that in no other form was allowed to cross the threshold of our house. My mother, having grown up in the Philippines, was more at ease with the concept of tiny, oily fish packed in salt and left to slowly decompose (the high concentration of salt inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria) until they yield their liquid essence, which is used both in cooking and as a condiment, lending a note thrillingly close to rot, of dank earth and the deepest sea.

In Tagalog, this is patis, cousin to nuoc mam in Vietnam and nam pla in Thailand. In the West, it is simply “fish sauce,” and often regarded as an Eastern tradition. But the ancient Romans had their own versions, garum and liquamen (which may have been synonyms or distinct types or one a subclass of the other; scholars differ). Liquamen appears in almost every recipe of Apicius’ “De Re Coquinaria,” attributed to the first century A.D. and the only extant cookbook from that era. To Pliny the Elder, garum was a liquid “of a very exquisite nature,” whose cost rivaled that of perfume. To the Stoic philosopher Seneca, it was a dangerous indulgence that could corrupt one’s insides, both physical and spiritual — but then again, he frowned on oysters too.

No one knows quite why garum fell out of favor. Maybe it was the high taxes on salt to fund Roman wars toward the end of the empire, or the increasing brazenness of pirates, disrupting the lives of fishermen. Maybe the Visigoths and the Vandals just didn’t like the scent, which the poet Martial described as “putrid.” A gap opens in history. Then, sometime in the Middle Ages (or so legend has it), monks near the village of Cetara on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, tasked with preserving the local catch of anchovies, discovered the pleasures of the amber liquid exuded by the fish as it aged.

For centuries, this remained something of a regional secret. The villagers made colatura di alici (literally “anchovy drippings”) in old wine barrels in their cellars and gave small bottles to their neighbors for Christmas. Only in recent decades has colatura reached a broader audience. I tasted it for the first time in Milan last summer. I was in the city for less than 24 hours and for my one dinner chose Trippa, a trattoria at once unassuming and wildly acclaimed. (When I told the haughty manager at our hotel that we had a reservation there, he looked at me differently, as if I had risen in his esteem.)

I ordered a plate of spaghettini with colatura and bottarga di muggine (cured gray mullet roe) — a marriage of two traditional dishes. “You can’t stop at classical tradition,” Diego Rossi, the chef, told me. “You have to invent new dishes, to make a new tradition.” The taste was insistent yet oddly delicate, and powerfully marine. The waiter said that the recipe was simple: “Boil the pasta. Not too much. Season it with olive oil, bottarga — grate it fine, like cheese — and colatura.”

Later, when I consulted Rossi, it turned out to be slightly more complicated. You begin with the bottarga, grating it into a bowl, then add a little yellow tomato, “just enough to dirty the sauce,” Rossi said, along with colatura, garlic, basil, chile and a touch of lemon. The sweetness of the tomato contrasts with the bitterness of the bottarga. It’s best to make the pasta in single servings, as at Trippa, to control that bitterness.

Note that the sauce isn’t cooked: Instead, you let the ingredients melt slowly among the strands of hot spaghettini, “to respect the bottarga,” Rossi said. The heat turns the pale shavings into a lush cream. The umami is everywhere, in the bottarga, in the tomato. And beneath it all, hardly announcing itself yet essential, the colatura, calling back to a remembered sea.

This simple recipe for pasta with bottarga by La Cucina Italiana’s head chef Joëlle Néderlants is a perfect go-to for those nights when you’re craving something delicious but just can’t be bothered to spend too much time standing in front of the stove.  


Spaghettini alla Bottarga 

Ingredients for 2
6 oz. spaghettini (170g)
4 Tbsp. white almonds (60 g)
3⅓ Tbsp. fresh mullet bottarga (50 g)
2 Tbsp. butter (30 g)
1 garlic clove
fennel seeds
wild fennel

First 5 minutes:
Fill a saucepan with plenty of hot tap water and bring it to a boil.

In the meantime, blend combine the following ingredients and blend them into a creamy sauce: 3⅓ Tbsp. (50 g) almonds with 5 oz. (125 g) of water, the zest of ½ lemon and a splash of its juice, ½ tsp. fennel seeds, salt, and pepper.

Next 5 minutes: 
When the water comes to a boil, add salt and then cook the spaghettini. While it’s cooking, chop the remaining almonds, cut the garlic into small pieces, and chop a sprig of wild fennel.

Last 5 minute: 
Heat up the almond sauce in a pan with the butter and garlic clove. When the spaghettini is al dente, use a slotted spoon to remove it from the cooking water and add to the pan in which the almond sauce is cooking. Whisk together, adding a little chopped fennel and chopped almonds. Distribute the pasta in the dishes and complete with the remaining fennel, the grated bottarga, and some freshly ground black pepper.

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