I am always a believer in using the best, freshest, most flavorful ingredients I can afford, preferably locally grown. Locally grown foods are not only politically, economically and ecologically sound additions to our diets, they are also tastier and more nutritious as well.
Vegetables, fruits and herbs which are picked just before you eat them have more of their nutrients left; those which have been picked and shipped from far away lose their nutritive qualities quickly. (In my opinion, you are better off eating frozen vegetables than most of the ones fround in your local grocery store that have traveled thousands of miles–the frozen ones were frozen not long after they were picked; the “fresh” ones often were picked more than a week before they get to you.)
My insistence on the freshest ingredients goes into overdrive, however, when I am a making a very simple dish which relies upon the quality of every single component. When cooking something that is made with only a handful of ingredients, and which relies upon a minimum of flavors and very simple cookery techniques which transform these ingredients as little as possible, it really is imperative to start out with the best of the best.
Using the best one can afford keeps simple foods from tasting boring or flat.
I am especially fanatic about great ingredients when I set out to make a very simple summer pasta, like the one I made last night.
With a sauce based on onions caramelized in butter and olive oil, sauteed fresh garlic and chilies, a splash of sherry and a heavy handful each of shredded parmesan cheese and minced fresh basil and Italian parsley, each ingredient should be the best that there is. There is simply no room in this recipe to hide low quality ingredients.
So this is the time to splurge on good olive oil and genuine parmesiano-reggiano cheese. This is the time to run out and pick a double handful of fresh basil from your garden, and mince it up right before you stir it into the pasta. This is the time to use fresh spring onions and garlic, because their flavors really shine.
I am lucky; the drought we have had for most of this winter and spring have made the onions, garlic and basil all exceptionally flavorful. The strawberries, blueberries and blackberries may not have appreciated the dry weather, but the herbs and other aromatics are among the most fragrant and delicious I have ever grown or bought here in Athens. The basil in our deck garden is huge, and lush–and you can smell it even before you have climbed the stairs all the way to the top where it grows in pots, overtaking their containers in wild abandon.
The scent wafts down on the slightest of breezes, spicy and redolent of green, tinged with the sweetness of licorice. This is some of the best basil I have grown–the lack of water has concentrated the essential oils that give the leaves of every variety their flavor. (I have two different types of Thai basil, two Italian basils, a Mexican basil and cinnamon basil all up on the deck.)
It is amazing stuff, really fresh basil, and it is deserving of the truly fresh garlic that I have been buying from Rich Tomsu. He grows many varieties of garlic, all of them good. I like the spicier German hardneck garlic he grows–it is robust and when just freshly dug, so full of sticky juice it is fairly bursting with flavor and scent. It is sexy and strong and oh so earthy–it tastes as deep and rich as Eartha Kitt’s voice.
Dan watched me make the pasta, which I whipped up on a whim, asking him to stay. It is a vegetarian meal, with the exception of one ingredient: a tiny amount of anchovy paste.(Here is a note: if you want to be totally vegetarian, replace the anchovy paste with some rehydrated dry porcini and shiitake mushrooms, minced finely, or some truffle paste or truffle oil.) I showed him how to make it, because it is so simple, and he was impressed with how quickly it went together. It seemed, in fact, like I had created dinner out of nothing: a pound of pasta, some butter and olive oil, onions, garlic, chilies, anchovy paste, a splash of wine, lemon zest and juice, fresh herbs and cheese. Surprised at how satisfying it was, he ate two bowls of it, and didn’t note the lack of meat at all.
None of us did. When the fresh vegetable ingredients are this good, and the pasta is of a high quality and is cooked al dente, meat is not missed.
There are almost endless variants one could make with this basic recipe. Change the herbs, change the cheese, add some shredded vegetables, a mixture of mushrooms, take out the lemon juice and use chicken or vegetable broth, add olives–fresh breadcrumbs or almonds or pine nuts–you get the picture. Change the pasta shape, use fresh pasta, use flavored pasta. It is all too much fun to imagine the possibilities.
Gemelli with Caramelized Onions and Herbs
1 pound of gemelli pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups thinly sliced spring onions or regular yellow onions
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon anchovy paste
3 tablespoons fresh garlic, minced (about 4 large cloves)
fresh chilies to taste (I used three fresh thai bird chilies), minced
1 tablespoon freshly minced lemon zest (zest of one lemon)
1/4 cup sherry or marsala wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
3/4 cup packed freshly minced fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup packed freshly minced Italian parsley leaves
roughly 1/4 cup each grated parmesan cheese and minced herb leaves for garnish
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a wide, deep heavy-bottomed skillet on medium heat. Add the onions in a single layer and sprinkle with the salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until they are a deep golden brown.
Put the pasta in to cook, and cook until it is just barely al dente. It should be ever so slightly undercooked. Before draining it, scoop out about a cup of cooking water and reserve it. Drain the pasta.
Add the anchovy paste, garlic, chilies and lemon zest and cook for another few minutes, until the garlic turns golden and everything is fragrant. When the onions are totally broken down, deglaze the pan with the wine and allow the alcohol to boil off, stirring all the while. Add the lemon juice and the drained pasta, and some of the cooking water, as needed to mix the pasta with the caramelized onions.
Stir in the cheese and herbs, stirring as the cheese melts and incorporates into the pasta.
Serve immediately in warmed bowls, garnishing each portion with a sprinkle of cheese and herb bits.
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