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Crunchy spaghetti

"to move freely, a starting point is required" Rachel Roddy

My starting point today is this dish - Spaghetti all'assassina which Rachel Roddy recently featured in one of her columns in The Guardian. I like to read her columns, because like Nigel Slater she writes so well. She's thought provoking. The recipes are sometimes not that wonderful, but always doable, and I suspect that this one might fit into that category. However, with respect to the article it was one of her most interesting ones, and one that got me to thinking about a number of different things, not the least of which was the related notions of crunchy spaghetti and one pot pasta. Not quite the same thing.

It also sent me back to the story aspect of recipes. These are mostly connected to origin stories, but sometimes are more personal. In this instance we are also talking about evolution from one well-known dish - in this case spaghetti arrabbiata and that always contentious area of authenticity. The more you look the more you find and the more you learn, as well as dreaming of places visited in the past whilst reviving a desire to travel there again.

I confess I began this thinking there was not much to say, but as usual I probably have too much. So where to begin.

At the creation story? And I don't mean God, rainbow serpents or anything as grand. I just mean the origin of spaghetti all'assassina - now an accepted speciality of the town of Bari in Puglia. Such a speciality that an Accademia was formed in 2013 to preserve it - rules were set up. Moreover would you believe, in this day and age, that it was a men only institution. Women were barred. So - because it is this day and age - the women set up a rival Accademia! I gather that they now do meet together occasionally. But really!

"The academies have a social purpose, but more importantly in their view, have a role to prevent the diffusion of the dish. Which serves up another dichotomy. Cooking respects tradition. But one of its best traditions is innovation and evolution in the kitchen. Our eating out experience has rewarded us with some amazing versions of assassina that go beyond the rules of the Accademie." Puglia Guys

And yet again I have strayed from my purpose and the origin story - well stories as it inevitably turns out. And new ones keep popping up. This man is one Pietro Lonigro of a restaurant called Al Sorso Preferito in Bari, who claims to have invented the dish. Now Rachel Roddy has two different versions, but both associated with the same restaurant, so I think perhaps the source location may be right, even though another restaurant Marco D'Aurelio is sometimes mentioned. Oh no, I forgot. One theory is that this dish has existed for eons, being basically leftover spaghetti fried with a chilli spiced tomato sauce. And you know, like virtually all of these 'traditional' dishes I reckon that one may be the true origin story.

The Puglia Guys who feature Pietro Lonigro also say, however, that:

"Legend has it that when they took over adjacent space, previously a rotisserie, they found the recipe on a scrap of paper, which they revived." Puglia Guys

As Rachel Roddy tells it, the cook was Enzo Francavella, who said in an interview - and we are talking the 1960s here.

"one night, a couple from northern Italy asked for something good and substantial to eat. “So I invented a plate of spaghetti with a tomato sauce and a generous dose of chilli, prepared directly in the iron pan, making the sauce tighten well and thus creating a tasty external crust.” “Sei un assassino” (“you are a killer”) was the customer’s response and a dish was born."

However, she notes that there is also a slightly different story, told by Nicholas Antonacci who worked in the restaurant and saw Francavella make it:

"at the time, Al Sorso Preferito served mostly cold cuts, cheese and wine, but that, after requests from regulars, they started serving a couple of hot dishes, including spaghetti all’arrabbiata with tomato and a fiery amount of chilli. Over time, and thanks to the kitchen’s well-seasoned iron pans, the spaghetti often ended up with a crust, which was appreciated and requested. Fiery became a killer, and an improvised dish became a habit."

Whoever, whenever and wherever it was actually invented, it does seem to be certain that it was in Bari and the Puglia Guys take you through the various versions on offer there, and I have to say they look rather more tempting than Rachel Roddy's. Much crunchier. Some of them were almost burnt, and not all abided by the Accademie rules - the second one below is from a restaurant called U.Kor and has an Asian twist in that the noodles are rice, and vegetables and Korean spices are included. In the words of the Puglia Guys: "a classic fusion and innovation of crossover cuisine." I.e. not Accademie approved.

"stories and recipes are like sauce in a pan: they move differently in each telling and in each pair of hands." Rachel Roddy

Moving on to the forbidden variations. Initially I was just going to present a few variations, and initially I also got it wrong with my Google search words, and found various dishes that almost but not quite, were the same thing. Really though, they are more like a lasagne that is cooked on the stove top. Yes everything goes into the same pot, and the pasta is cooked in the sauce, but there is no crisping of the pasta. Examples that I found are: Kale, tomato and lemon magic one-pot pasta from Anna Jones; Pumpkin, broccoli, bacon pasta from Taste; Simple absorption pasta from Nibble Dish and Martha Stewart's One pot pasta on the Food52 website.

There are heaps more suggestions out there and I'm sure you could make up your own. You just need to be careful that you have enough liquid to cook the pasta with. I suspect that the simpler the sauce, the better the result, although I have no evidence for this. And the aim of these dishes is just to cook the pasta in a sauce in one pan, not to produce anything crunchy or crispy.

They weren't quite what I was looking for however, and because I vaguely remembered an Ottolenghi dish I went back to my cookbooks and found four examples - three from Ottolenghi himself and his test kitchen and one from Ixta Belfrage. The first one One pan crispy spaghetti and chicken came with its very own rather touching origin story. His father had died recently. This was at the time of COVID lockdown and he was cooking at home with his two sons, who frequently asked for fried pasta - a dish he and they remembered his father cooking. And so this dish was born:

"Whatever “they” cooked gave my boys great pleasure, the kind of joy my dad was so irritated at losing. Seeing them hunched over a pan for pasta, fighting over the crispy bits as if they were gold dust and then devouring them with urgency, gave me all the comfort I needed then."

I have actually made this dish but I see that I only gave it 3 1/2 stars, although I note that I added a bit more water and probably shouldn't have. I don't think it was crunchy enough, so I suspect the minor failure was down to me not the guys in the Ottolenghi test kitchen. I will try it again. I see I suggest adding more or different cheese, maybe some olives, bacon, spinach ... I certainly don't think mine looked as beautifully crispy as the OTK version. But then I never seem to be able to get crispy chicken.

The other two Ottolenghi/OTK dishes were Fried tagliatelle, chickpeas and smoky tomato oil which is slightly different in that you fry the tagliatelle nests first before adding the liquid ingredients; and Baked orzo puttanesca. I don't like orzo particularly, although maybe crunchy orzo would be alright. My objection to orzo is that it is a bit slimy. Then there is Ixta Belfrage's Piri piri tofu over crispy orzo - orzo again and tofu too which is not my thing, but she does say that if tofu is not for you then try fish. Alas no recipe online as yet. It's from her book Meczla, which I keep on telling you to buy.

And you would think that was it - well it as far as the variation in technique goes. But no. Two more.

First - you have that fried pasta using up leftovers, which may have started all of this anyway. I know I have done this myself, varying it by reheating in the microwave with various additions, like herbs, spices, cheese, anchovies ... However, I can't resist two from Jamie and Gennaro. From Jamie and his cookbook Jamie's Italy we have Spaghetti fritters (Frittelle di spaghetti). The recipe is not on his website but a fan from a website called What to Cook Today features it. Then there is Gennaro's pasta frittata - four variations thereof and I think this is probably another one of those things that Italian housewives probably do with leftover pasta. I think I've come across recipes here and there on the net as well.

So let's end, right up to the minute with TikTok - another viral sensation, that I notice even the BBC has picked up on - Pasta chips but you will need an air fryer for that one. Any kind of pasta will do.

Stories - so many. There's probably a story about the TikTok chips too. So last words go to Rachel Roddy who started all this:

"The origin story – the specific episode or exact moment when someone decides to make something for the first time: an apple fell on my head, so I made a crumble; I burned the pasta, but everybody loved it; the tale of the margherita, a pizza for a queen... I love such stories, yet find them a nightmare, too.

On the one hand, even when fanciful, they recognise a set of circumstances or a person – credit where credit’s due, etc. On the other, in being recognised, these stories and, therefore the recipes, get trapped, often becoming the very opposite of what they once were – a happy accident of resourceful cooking, a record of when someone improvised and made something good."

We probably all improvise and make something good - every time we raid the fridge or refashion leftovers, but I doubt very much that any of them will result in an Accademia that sets the recipe in stone. Besides I doubt that we would make the exact same dish again either. We might have a story to tell about it though.


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