I am probably going to get a reputation on food52 as a cook who only makes pasta! But when this contest was announced, I knew that I wanted to submit this dish. This pasta has many cherished memories associated with it. It has been the centerpiece of my family's Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember having Christmas Eve dinner at my grandparents' house. These were huge, chaotic, festive affairs with about thirty family members -- aunts, uncles and cousins. We usually did not have literally seven fishes, but dinner always included two kinds of baccala (cod). One was dried cod that was turned into a salad dressed with olive oil; the other was fresh cod, baked in the oven. There were always fried smelts and anchovies. And occasionally there would even be octopus. But the highlight of the dinner (at least for me) was the pasta with squid sauce. Of course, my grandmother always served the tentacles as well as the rings, which some of my cousins found rather disgusting. They would eat sugar and butter sandwiches instead, but that's another story.
Now that I have grown up and moved away, our Christmas Eve dinners are more intimate affairs. But I still make this pasta every Christmas Eve for my family. Now, it gives me great pleasure to see my six-year-old daughter embrace this dish just as I did, so many years ago. She calls this recipe Spaghetti with Rings (because of the shape the squid is cut into). So that's what we call this dish now.
The spirit of this dish is very much what my great-grandmother and my grandmother would have made. But I have tinkered a bit with the recipe ingredients and techniques. First of all, I strongly recommend splurging on San Marzano tomatoes. Because this is such a quick-cooking sauce, you want the best tomato flavor that you can possibly get. My ancestors would not have used shellfish in this dish, but I love the addition of them. Now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I use local clams, but mussels are also a nice choice. I cook the squid for far less time than my grandmother would have. She was an excellent cook, but as my father often said, her squid was a bit too rubbery.
To get the optimum basil and garlic flavor into this delicate sauce, I have adapted a technique that NYC chef Andrew Carmellini uses in his excellent cookbook, Urban Italian. Basically, you infuse olive oil with garlic and basil and add it to the sauce at the end of the cooking time rather than at the beginning. It adds a really wonderful layer of flavor to the sauce.
And while I know that most foodies frown on putting cheese on a pasta sauce that contains fish, my family has always garnished this dish with Pecorino Romano, and I continue to do so too. However, purists could make breadcrumbs out of stale bread, toast the bread crumbs and a little bit of salt in some warm olive oil, and use the breadcrumbs as a garnish for this pasta. —cookinginvictoria
- Serves 4 with plenty of leftovers
medium yellow onion, thinly sliced, then roughly chopped
plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
cans (28 oz. each) good quality Italian tomatoes, preferably San Marzano tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons
Freshly ground black pepper to taste or about 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (more if you like a really spicy sauce!)
squid, tentacles and bodies, cleaned
small clams (I used local Manila clams, but any littleneck clams will do fine) or mussels, optional
spaghettini, cappelini or other thin noodle dry pasta (imported from Italy is best!)
basil leaves, firmly packed with stems attached, plus a couple of tablespoons additional basil leaves removed from stems and julienned (for garnish)
cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with chef's knife, but not sliced
parsley, roughly chopped
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese to finish the dish
- Warm large heavy bottomed pot (I use a Le Creuset cast iron dutch oven) over medium/low heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add onion and saute for about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally with wooden spoon. Keep a close eye on the onions. You don't want them to burn. When they have turned a nice golden color and are sizzling nicely, open tomatoes, drain most of the liquid out of the can and reserve. Add tomatoes to pot and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a low simmer. Cook for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add reserved tomato juice to sauce if it is looking too dry, but be careful not to add too much. This sauce creates additional liquid once the shellfish is added, and you don't want the sauce to be too watery when it finishes cooking.
- While sauce is cooking, prepare fish. Rinse squid in a colander. If any remaining cartilage or membrane is on the squid, remove with a sharp knife. Cut squid into rings about 1/4-1/2 inch wide. If you are lucky enough to have the tentacles, roughly chop them. Rinse clams in cold water. If any clams have started to open, discard.
- Put pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Check on sauce. After the sauce has cooked about 20-25 minutes, add salt, about 1/4 teaspoon at a time. (I add about a teaspoon total of salt.) Keep tasting, until the flavors seem balanced. The tomatoes should have a fresh, but not raw taste. Add a grind or two of black pepper or the crushed red pepper flakes to taste.
- Turn heat up to medium/low. Add squid bodies and tentacles. When mixture comes back to a gentle simmer, reduce heat. After about 8-9 minutes, add clams to pot and partially cover with lid. When squid has been in the pot about 12 minutes, start tasting it. I like squid best with an al dente texture, it should taste toothsome, but not raw. But it gets rubbery within seconds, so the minute you think it's done take it immediately off the heat. Clams should open within about 8 minutes or so. Make sure that they are submerged into the sauce. That helps to speed them along. Add parsley and stir into sauce.
- While fish is cooking, add pasta to boiling water. Give it a good stir. Then add garlic, remaining 1/3 cup olive oil and basil leaves to cold skillet. Turn heat on low. When you hear the basil leaves crackle and the oil start to bubble, take off the heat. Strain oil and discard garlic and basil. After the sauce is off the heat, add basil and garlic flavored oil to the sauce. Mix in to combine.
- Taste pasta. When it is al dente, drain in a colander, reserving about 1/2 cup of pasta water. Add a ladleful of pasta water to big spaghetti bowl or serving platter to warm. Discard water. Add a ladleful of sauce with fish to bottom of the bowl. Sprinkle with cheese. Top with a layer of spaghettini. Add more sauce, fish and cheese to bowl, with another layer of spaghettini. Keep layering ingredients (almost like making a lasagna) until bowl is full. Sprinkle additional cheese and a shower of basil on top. Surround pasta with additional squid and clams.
- Pour some nice red wine. I like Grenache or Sangiovese with this pasta. Serve with some crusty Italian bread. Enjoy with loved ones.