Life without pasta, oil, salt would bring me to tears

The Whole Dish podcast: Follow a few rules for perfect plates of pasta

Just as I’ve never been one for much in the way of New Year’s food resolutions, I’ve never warmed up to the notion of a low-carb diet.

Pasta is a staple in our house, something I simply won’t do without. I’ve been known to say that if stranded on a desert island with only one food to eat for the rest of my life, I’d choose pasta, provided I also had butter or oil and salt.

Not the most nutritious pick, I realize. But what would I care? I’d prefer to spend the short time I likely had left, relishing those fast carbs and largely empty calories.

This blog reflects that fondness, as regular readers have come to recognize. In more than a decade, I’ve touted scores of pasta dishes. The past year of these annals offered 20 mentions of pasta and almost half that number of actual recipes.

But when I kid myself into believing that there’s really no new pasta dish under the sun, I run across a recipe like this one from the Chicago Tribune. Inspired “vaguely” by The London Plane restaurant in Seattle, Crying Bucatini combines Thai and Italian flavors in a way I never would have conceived. Its inclusion of ground lamb, another staple in my home, convinced me that I had to try it, rather than consigning that lamb to another meal of meatballs with spaghetti or Greek pizza.

I couldn’t make the dish without adapting it, of course, because I’m obstinately incapable of accepting most recipes as gospel. I’ve cooked enough ground lamb, for example, to know that I don’t need additional oil for sautéing. Lamb is fatty enough that in a nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron pan, there’s little chance of it sticking. Because I skipped the oil (also stricken here from the original recipe), I also skipped the step that called for draining the browned meat.

The use of hazelnuts also intrigued me and prompted me to buy some new-crop, in-shell hazelnuts when they were abundant in grocery stores around the holidays. But shelling them, of course, is something of a pain, skinning them even more so. And I wasn’t convinced after tasting the finished dish that almonds or even pistachios wouldn’t have been just as good for much less hassle.

I took the liberty of intensifying the lamb’s savor with fish sauce, which I’ve come to view almost as a multipurpose seasoning. It’s an obvious addition to this recipe’s Thai red-pepper paste and lime juice.

Similarly, I played up the lime by incorporating its zest with the juice in the melted butter. Yet in the end, I still craved more acid. So when I reheated leftovers, I mixed up more pepper-tomato paste with a few dashes of fish sauce and a good dollop of tamarind concentrate. The sugar called for here is superfluous on my palate.

The dish’s Thai sensibility would be even more apparent by substituting coconut oil for the butter, only in about half the quantity because this dish doesn’t lack for fat. And while you’re at it, use rice noodles instead of wheat. It won’t be low-carb but at least it would be gluten-free!

Tribune News Service

Crying Bucatini

1 cup hazelnuts without skins

1 pound ground lamb

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

3 to 4 tablespoons Thai red pepper paste (fermented or roasted)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon sugar

Kosher salt, as needed

1 pound bucatini

6 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 cup each, coarsely chopped fresh: mint, cilantro, basil

Roll the nuts onto a rimmed baking sheet. Slide into a 400-degree oven and roast until golden and fragrant, shaking once or twice, for about 8 minutes. Coarsely chop. (A food processor cuts down on fugitives.)

In a wide skillet over medium-high heat, add the lamb; cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until just browned, for about 5 minutes. Scrape into a colander to drain off fat. Return meat to skillet. Lower heat to medium. Stir in the garlic, pepper paste, tomato paste, sugar and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Cook for 1 minute.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the pasta until tender but firm. Scoop out 1 cup cooking water. Drain pasta.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the lime juice and 3 tablespoons of pasta cooking water. Boil for 1 minute. Add the nuts and cook for 30 seconds.

Toss hazelnut sauce with cooked pasta. Add lamb and toss. Add the herbs and toss. Taste for salt. If pasta looks dry, add a little more reserved pasta cooking water. Enjoy.

Makes 6 servings.

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