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The Food Lab Lite: Pasta with Crab, Tomato, and Chilies
Yeah, it's still snowing on and off in New York, but we're on the cusp of crabbing season, which probably explains why I've got crabs on the mind. It also helps that it's my wife's favorite seafood and she's about to embark on a six month west-coast sabbatical so I'm trying to squeeze in all the brownie points I can before she takes off for the sunnier climes.
As I discovered, finding quality crab in New York City is not an easy task in the ultra-early spring. I had to resort to taking to Twitter for recommendations and calling over a dozen seafood sellers around the city, only to find that the *only* one to be carrying fresh crab (I can't abide by the canned and pasteurized stuff) was the fish counter at Eataly. Now, despite the many great products that Eataly carries, I'd been burned by the fish counter there in the past with a rather expensive container of picked crab that turned out to be not-quite-so-fresh when I examined it at home.
Luckily, my Tweeted complaints were met with a prompt response and what appears to be an earnest attempt at rectifying the problems. I even had a chance to chat with the seafood manager to discuss ways in which product quality control could be improved. I've since returned to buy seafood from the counter three times and have indeed noted an improvement in quality and care shown to the display, so cheers to taking feedback and running with it, Eataly!
And what have I been doing with all this fresh crab? Well for one thing, making a butt-load* of crab cakes for an upcoming installment of The Food Lab. But on my way out of Eataly I couldn't help but notice the fantastic-looking fresh Spaghetti alla Chittara in the pasta department.
*did you know that a butt-load is an actual measure equivalent to 126 gallons or two hogsheads? True story.
My mind immediately drifted off to midtown and the fantastic Spaghetti with Crab, Sea Urchin, and Basil.
Their version is made by blending sea urchins into their pomodoro sauce, then tossing the whole thing with fresh-cooked pasta, crab meat, oven-dried tomatoes, and a sprinkle of bread crumbs.
Riffing on that setup, I decided to instead go with the vodka-cream sauce I'd been doing tests on last week the base for my dish. The brightness of the sauce and the sweetness of the crab really hit it off together. To the base I added a handful of sliced hot red chilies, reinforcing the heat in the sauce base.
With the sauce made, incorporating the crab is as easy as folding it in, taking care not to break it up too much. Crab has a way of ingratiating itself to its surroundings, its flavor blending in so that every strand of sauce-coated spaghetti gets its aroma and flavor whether chunks of it make it into your mouth or not.
Rather than Marea's basil, I went with a mix of parsley and chives, also tossing some in with the bread crumbs that I'd toasted in olive oil.
"Bread crumbs are a completely underrated pasta topping," said Ed. I agree. They add texture and absorb flavor without distracting and are the perfect counterpoint to an otherwise all-soft plate.
The resulting dish is so darn delicious I may even have to share it with my wife next time. Did I mention I finished it all before she got a chance? There go my brownie points.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.