Saturday, September 26, 2009

Recipe Redux

As some of you may recall, my first attempt at the "simple pasta dish" a few weekends ago was rather disastrous. I'm happy to report my cooking hex has been lifted, which is great news for anyone coming over for dinner in the near future. The down side is the 5 pounds I lost as a result of having to throw out most of my cooking for a week has returned.  

Although fall is officially upon us, it's still glorious beach weather in Santa Barbara with the Farmers Market overflowing with tomatoes. I wanted to try my hand (again!) at preparing a super simple southern Italian summer pasta to showcase them. But with any simple recipe, the ingredients have to really be top notch. Trust me, this is not a time to be scrimping. I searched unsuccessfully for my beloved San Marzanos but the Romas were certainly nothing to thumb your nose at. 

The other key factor in this recipe is the bottarga. The what?! . . . Bottarga. Sometimes referred to as the poor man's caviar, bottarga is salted, pressed, and dried mullet or tuna roe that's been waxed to prevent further drying and exposure to light. I admit it looks bizarre, like some sort of large animal tongue, but don't let the appearance scare you off. You grate it over food and it ends up looking like bread crumbs and tasting salty yet sublime. 

It personifies a "secret ingredient" — that one flavor you can't quite put your finger on but transforms an almost ho-hum dish into something you salivate over still months later. Think of it as a kind of oceanic equivalent of supreme parmesan cheese. There is no substitution. It's imported from Italy and is pretty expensive (around $10 an ounce), but it has a shelf-life of at least nine months in the fridge, making it a long-lasting and definitely tasty investment. This is hard to find though. Very few grocery stores or gourmet shops carry this, but you can buy it online here and here. Ask your local gourmet shop if they'll special order it for you. Get some though. You'll love it and find many other delicious uses for your culinary expenditure like eggs, risotto, salad, bruschetta, etc. 

This is a perfect weekend dish because it does require some advanced planning but little effort. To make this recipe work, you need to roast the tomatoes over very low heat for a very long time. Given my unfortunate outcome previously, I chickened out at five hours and pulled out the tomatoes instead of cooking them for the recommended six. I just couldn't stand the thought of whipping out another tray of shriveled up pieces of bark, I mean tomatoes, again.  Here is a before and after picture. The end product is nearing a "sun-dried" look but still a little juicy. 

This is totally random, but here is another picture of the finished tomatoes, which reminded me of a tray of those wax lips you see at Halloween. It made me chuckle. I'm clearly easily amused. . . .

Anyway, once the tomatoes are done, the dish comes together in minutes, which is also a bonus because who wants to be slaving over a hot stove for hours when it's still 80 degrees at 8 o'clock at night? However, the richness of this dish still tastes like you spent the entire day in the kitchen, when really, if you're like me, you were just reading the latest US Weekly and sipping a glass of wine. Some secrets don't have to leave the kitchen. ;-) 

Penne with Oven-Roasted Tomatoes, Garlic, Chiles and Bottarga
Adapted from A16: Food + Wine Cookbook

Kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 tsp dried chile flakes
2 dozen fresh San Marzano tomatoes (or Romas if not available)
1/2 lb penne (I used whole wheat because it makes me feel less guilty)
1-ounce piece of bottarga for grating
Parmesan cheese for grating (optional)

Cut tomatoes in half and core. Place cut side up on a foil-wrapped cookie sheet covered in a layer of kosher salt. Place in a 200 degree over for approximately 5 hours. The tomatoes will be beyond "roasted," almost teetering on the verge of becoming dried out. This intensifies the flavor of the tomatoes. These can be made in advance and kept in an air-tight container and refrigerated. 
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and chile flakes and sweat, stirring occassionally, for about 3 minutes or until the garlic has softened. Chop roasted/dried tomatoes in halves and add to the pan, cooking for about 5 minutes or until the tomatoes have plumped up. Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. Keep in mind the bottarga is salty so proceed cautiously. 
Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for about 1 minute less than specified on the package. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss well, adding some of the reserved sauce or a few drizzles of olive oil if needed. If the sauce is too loose, turn up the heat to medium-high and cook down the sauce with the pasta. Taste for seasoning adding more salt if needed. 
Serve the pasta in a bowl and grate the bottarga over the top to finish and serve immediately. I add a little grated parmesan too because frankly I think it makes any tomato-based sauce taste better. Yields: 2 servings. 


  1. I'm so glad you gave it a second try - it looks amazing. And although I'm slightly frightened by the bottarga, I'm going to order some.

  2. Thanks for persevering Holley! I am very intrigued by the bottarga and can't wait to get my hands on some and give this recipe a try. Cool weather coming :-)

  3. looks great, now I just need to find Bottarga here in Madrid :-)