Friday, February 5, 2010

30-minute wonder: Tagliatelle in simple meat sauce

By Helen Klein

I read cookbooks all the time.

For me, a good cookbook is like a good novel, but instead of watching the thwarted love affair between Cathy and Heathcliff painfully unfold, I’m engrossed in the mating dance of complementary ingredients.

Yes, I do have a long-standing romance with good olive oil, fragrant fresh lemons, and the zillion shapes of pasta that are available on supermarket shelves.

The latest book I picked up to read, cover to cover, was Thirty Minute Pasta (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $27.50) by Giuliano Hazan.

Needless to say, I couldn’t resist the characters: The flirty semolina bowties known as farfalle, hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese just begging to be grated, red ripe tomatoes swollen with juice, toothsome beans whose unctuous smoothness complements the gentle bite of pasta al dente, and a supporting cast that includes such flavorful additions as tangy capers, silky basil leaves and salty pancetta, the Italian answer to American bacon.

The question was: Would the book deliver? Most of the cookbooks I read end up being shelvers, volumes that find a place on my bookshelf, never to emerge, though I may have picked up a tip or two while perusing them.

Then, there are the others – the favored 50 or so – with sauce-spattered pages that may even slip rebelliously out of the binding if the book is injudiciously pulled from its place.

With such an encouraging title, Thirty Minute Pasta – I often spend upwards of an hour in the kitchen prepping dinner – the promise of “100 quick and easy recipes” definitely had potential, the more so as, skimming its pages, I found faithful recreations of favorite dishes I first ate in Italy.

I was sold, in fact, when Hazan extolled the virtues of pasta with garlic, oil and hot pepper (Spaghettini all’Aglio e Olio) as a midnight snack. That was exactly how I’d first eaten it, on a long-ago visit to Rome, when the Italian friend I was staying with put up a pot of water late one evening, and started slicing garlic.

On another page, I found a favorite I had first tasted in a Roman restaurant, on a patio, under the night sky: Spaghetti with Raw Tomato Sauce (Spaghetti al Pomodoro Crudo), though when I first ate it, the dish – which is enhanced by fresh basil leaves and fresh garlic -- was made with wagon wheel-shaped pasta.

For my test, I chose a very different recipe, Tagliatelle with a Quick and Simple Meat Sauce (Tagliatelle al Ragu Veloce). I wondered, could a flavorful and sufficiently mature-tasting meat sauce really be made in only 30 minutes?

The answer, after about 40 minutes of cooking, was yes. The pasta met with the approval of my assigned tasters (son and daughter), though my son and I agreed that, next time I made the dish, I would tweak it – add garlic, fresh basil and black pepper – to see what kind of difference that would make.

Nota bene: The recipe calls for skinning the fresh tomatoes. To accomplish that quickly and easily, I dunked them in the boiling pasta water (before I added the pasta) for a quick blanching. All it took was a minute, and the skins slipped right off with minimal effort on my part.

Tagliatelle with a quick and simple meat sauce

½ medium yellow onion
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound fresh tomatoes
¾ pound ground beef chuck
10 ounces dried egg tagliatelle or pappardelle (or 1 pound rigatoni or shells)
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Serves 4

1. Fill a pot for the pasta with about 6 quarts of water, place over high heat, and bring to a boil.

2. Peel the onion and finely chop it. Put the olive oil and butter in a 12-inch skillet, add the chopped onion, and place over medium-high heat. Sauté until the onion turns a rich golden color, about 5 minutes.

3. While the onion is sautéing, peel the tomatoes and coarsely chop them.

4. When the onion is ready, add the ground beef, season with salt, and cook, stirring, until it has lost its raw color and just begins to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, season them with salt, and cook over medium heat until the liquid the tomatoes releases has almost completely evaporated, 10 to 12 minutes.

5. Add about 2 tablespoons salt to the boiling pasta water, add the tagliatelle, and stir until all the strands are submerged. Cook until al dente.

6. When the pasta is done, drain well, toss with the sauce and the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve at once.


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