February 10, 2015

Pasta All'Amatriciana

My sister and dad insisted that I publish something Lady and the Tramp-esque for Valentine's Day since the idea of slurping spaghetti with your significant other and meeting in the middle is the epitome of romance. Personally, I'd rather sit in a bathtub of this stuff and just shovel it into my mouth continuously, but you do you. Really, this pasta is just that good. I adapted it from my grandma's recipe for her "mother sauce," or Pasta All'Amatriciana as most people would call it.

The sauce is a variation of a classic red sauce/marinara/Sunday gravy, but it's infinitely better because it's full of bacon. Well, pancetta, which is the Italian version of bacon. Both pancetta and bacon are cured, but only bacon is smoked. Pancetta is often much more expensive, however, so if you're going to splurge on one thing, I'd actually recommend getting the right tomatoes (but I'll get to that later). I've made this with regular bacon and it tastes absolutely delicious, though I'd recommend adding just under what the recipe calls for since it has a stronger flavor.

I cook the pancetta/bacon in a big pot until it's crispy and a lot of the fat renders off. It may look like there's a lot of fat, but that's the best-case scenario because I cook the garlic and onions in it. If you like a chunkier sauce, dice or chop the onions to whatever size you would enjoy eating. I prefer a smooth sauce, so I just slice them because I puree the sauce later. Regardless of the cut, the onions and garlic are cooked until they are tender and fragrant in that flavorful pork fat. You have to cook them in some sort of fat, so you may as well use something that will impart extra flavor.

It's now time to add the tomatoes--probably the most important part of the whole dish. If you can, I highly recommend splurging on San Marzano tomatoes. You really can taste the difference; they are sweeter, less acidic, and contain fewer seeds than your typical canned tomatoes. You can only buy San Marzanos whole or crushed, though. Like I said, I prefer a smooth sauce, so I buy the crushed and puree them before adding the pancetta. You can buy crushed and leave them that texture or you can buy the whole ones and crush them by hand or with a blender before you add them. Once the tomatoes are crushed through whatever method, stir them into the cooked onions and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in the bacon and some red pepper flakes (they are traditionally used in this dish so add them to your desired level of spiciness), then let it all simmer together while you cook the pasta.

I suppose the pasta is fairly important, too, since you can't really make a dinner out of straight up tomato sauce. This is traditionally served with bucatini, which are like spaghetti but with a hole running through the center. Unfortunately, that minimizes the whole slurping romance thing because it would be like trying to suck up a straw. Bucatini is also fairly difficult to locate, but if you can, it's great for this dish because it soaks up all the sauce. Any long pasta will do because they maximize surface area. Cook the pasta to al dente and save some of the water when you drain it. The starch from the pasta is still in the water, which makes it a thickening agent for the sauce if you need it.

One of the main rules of Italian cooking/pasta making is stirring the pasta straight into the sauce. You should NEVER EVER EVER NEVER EVER rinse pasta because it washes all the starch off and you want that starch to make the sauce stick to the pasta. Just take some tongs and swirl the pasta all around the sauce and spoon it onto the plate. I'll admit it's a little hard to make this dish look elegant, but I like to top it with copious amounts of cheese, which helps hide any messiness. Traditionally, this is served with parmesan, but I also like some fresh mozzarella for creaminess and heartiness. To make this into a full meal, serve it with a salad, some focaccia, and a dessert, maybe some Linzer cookies or a chocolate hazelnut tart. It's fast enough to make for a regular weeknight but classy and romantic enough for the perfect Valentine's Day meal.

1/4 lb Pancetta or Bacon
1 Small Yellow Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 28 oz Can Crushed San Marzano Tomatoes
Red Pepper Flakes, To Taste
1 lb Pasta
Grated Parmesan and/or Shredded Mozzarella

Cook the pancetta in a large pot until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and chop when cool.

Cook the onion and garlic in the pancetta fat until tender and fragrant, about 4-6 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook for 10 minutes and puree if desired. Stir in the chopped pancetta and cook for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water. Drain, reserving some of the starchy water. Stir the pasta into the sauce, adding some of the pasta water as necessary. Serve immediately with the cheese, if desired.

Serves 4-6

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