Whenever I have a craving for comfort food, it would be safe to assume that either rice or pasta will be involved. Rice is a necessary accompaniment to the dishes of my childhood; it goes with everything from chicken stew and sautéed vegetables to marinated meats like tocino and tapa. Characterizing pasta as comfort food for me did not happen until I learned to cook in my own kitchen. I have always enjoyed pasta dishes but I admit that my very early exposure to Italian food was limited to such ubiquitous restaurant fare as Alfredo and meat sauce.
Fortunately, my Italian cookbooks have given me a better understanding of what “sauce” really is. Pasta sauce doesn’t have to be made up of tomatoes or cream. A simple pasta dish can be special with the addition of just a few humble ingredients and the sauce will neither be called “red” nor “white”.
This is my take on a Venetian classic, Bigoli con Salsa, a traditional dish for days of fasting. Bigoli is an extruded pasta that is traditionally made with either buckwheat flour or whole wheat flour. The sauce is a simple combination of olive oil, onions, anchovies and parsley. This variation includes tuna in olive oil but I went a couple of steps further by adding lemon juice, crushed red pepper and crispy sage.
The resulting dish has surprisingly more complexity than other tuna-based pasta dishes I’ve tried before. Tuna fish packed in olive oil has a lot of flavor and frankly, you don’t have to buy the Italian variety to guarantee a successful dish. I keep my pantry well-stocked with Trader Joe’s version. It’s economical and handy for easy meals. The slightly-caramelized shallots I used in place of onions added another layer of flavor–mild sweetness–that I admit wasn’t sure would work well but fortunately did. The crushed red pepper provided a bit of heat and the lemon some brightness.
The kicker, though, was the crispy sage. I fried about a dozen in a bit of olive oil and butter. The brown butter gave the sage a subtle nutty flavor, lending even more depth to this simple meal. This may seem like an odd mix of ingredients but I assure you that it worked! I’m happily adding this to my comfort-food list.
By the way, My Bottega Cookbook giveaway is still going on. Why don’t you drop by my earlier post for a chance to win!
Spaghetti with Tuna, Anchovies and Crispy Sage
* Adapted from Biba Caggiano’s Italy al Dente
- 1/3 – 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 large shallots, thinly sliced (or one small onion in keeping with tradition)
- 5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup water
- 5 anchovy fillets
- 1 5-0z can tuna packed in oil, drained and broken into small pieces
- 12 -15 fresh sage leaves
- Crushed red pepper
- Juice of half lemon
- 1 pound spaghetti (You can use whole wheat to follow tradition)
- Parmigiano Reggiano
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and cook the spaghetti until al dente. Meanwhile prepare the sage and sauce.
To prepare the sage: Using a large sauté pan that will accommodate the pasta sauce, heat the 1 tbsp of butter along with about three tablespoons of olive oil over med-high heat. Fry the sage leaves for about two minutes, remove from pan and drain on plate lined with a paper towel.
To prepare the sauce: Lower the heat on the same pan used above to med-low. Add the sliced shallots and water and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 8-10 minutes until the liquid has evaporated and the onions have caramelized a bit. Raise the heat to medium-high in the last two minutes and cook the onions until they are light golden brown.
Add a bit more of the reserved olive oil and the sliced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Then add the anchovies and tuna and cook for about three minutes. Add some crushed red pepper, a pinch or two of salt and some freshly ground pepper. You can add the juice of about half a lemon at this point, too.
When the pasta is al dente, drain it and add to the sauce. Toss in the pan along with the crispy sage. You can drizzle with more olive oil and add a bit of pasta water if the sauce looks too dry for you. Sprinkle with grated Parmigiano Reggiano before serving.