Building up a strong vegan pasta dish isn't all that different from building a non-vegan pasta dish. Here, the pasta is, of course, the star. The rest is just made up of a few supermarket staples—plum tomatoes, lots of garlic, olives, and bread crumbs—that, with just a bit of care and attention paid to concentrating and layering their flavors, can be transformed into something remarkably complex and intense. But before we get to the specifics, I've got a story to tell.
I've been watching a lot of Dexter recently, a show that focuses largely on the theme of coming clean about dark secrets; it's inspired me to admit to something that anyone who has known me for more than half an hour will find deeply disturbing. Are you ready?
I've started running.
That's right. Now, I never really got into the vegan thing with my health in mind, and that's really not what it's about at all, but in the interest of getting my mom and wife off my case and—ok—with the added side benefit of hopefully not being such a lazy lard-butt in the future, I've started running three days a week. I downloaded that Couch to 5K app and everything.
The first couple of weeks were rough; I was using the same sneakers that I bought over a decade and a half ago when I fooled myself into thinking I might play sports in college.* I had to blow dust off the insoles and discovered that the rubber treads had hardened so much that I may as well have strapped my cast iron pans to the bottoms of my feet.
*I ended up fulfilling my Physical Education requirements by acing pistol class and making a decent showing in something called "Ropes Adventure," a not-so-subtle euphemism for "that class where you get to jump on trampolines and play with parachutes"
Things have been getting easier with each outing. My shin splints are gone (thanks to a new pair of shoes), and my wife even surprised me with a brand new runner's wardrobe. Apparently, wearing the same pair of yellow shorts to run in a half dozen times between our laundry sessions—shorts that you only own because they mysteriously turned up in your clean laundry junior year of college—along with knee-high black socks (the only kind I owned) is not a sexy look. Who would've figured?
She also sagely pointed out that shorts, a t-shirt, and New York winters don't exactly mix. Being a creature of the cold I would've protested, but the look in her eyes was even frostier than the streets, so I wisely decided to pick a different battle for a different day. The next day, I was gifted with four new pairs of shorts, a set of long running pants that are made of some thin-but-warm material so slick and slippery** that they make me feel like I'm wearing nothing at all (but running in a pleasantly warm forest glade), a half dozen of those short socks that hide inside your shoes while wicking away all that unpleasant foot sweat (I'd like to shake the foot of the person who created this modern marvel of engineering), and not one, not two, but three layers of equally slick upper body coverings.
**My guess is that the only reason they don't use it to coat the inside of non-stick skillets is because it must be as flammable as it is slick.
I'm glad my wife is here to lead me in the right direction, because layering clothing is something I know absolutely nothing about. But there are a couple other types of layering that I'm pretty good at—namely flavors and textures. This dish employs a whole lot of it.
As the "triple garlic" in the name suggests, the first layer of flavors is all about the garlic. Have you ever noticed the diversity of flavors that garlic can produce based on how you prepare it? There's the sharp, pungent bite of barely-cooked garlic; the sweet, caramelized flavor of sautéed garlic; and the deep, rich aroma of slow-cooked garlic. We're gonna pack all three into one bowl.
I like sun-dried tomatoes as much as the next guy, but I prefer the intense sweetness and juicier bite of tomatoes slowly roasted in the oven until they're just about half dry. You can do this with regular beefsteak tomatoes, but cherry or plum tomatoes are consistently sweeter year-round and cook much faster, to boot. I split mine in half and spread them out on a foil-lined baking sheet (cut-side-up so they dehydrate faster), scatter them with a ton of thin-sliced garlic and a few sprigs of thyme, drizzle the whole thing with olive oil, season with salt, and let them cook slowly over the course of an hour and fifteen minutes in a low oven.
You'll be sorely tempted to pick off the roasted garlic chips from the tomatoes as soon as they come out of the oven, but remember to save at least a few of them for the pasta down the line.
Next layer of garlic flavor? Sweet and caramelized. I find that the best way to get there is to smash garlic cloves with the side of a knife, which ruptures their cell structure and releases all of those flavorful aromatic compounds and precursors locked within. Then I slow-cook them in a pan of olive oil, turning them and letting them gently sizzle until they're completely tender and richly browned. Not only do you end up with garlic cloves that are tender enough to be chopped to a near paste, but you also get oil that's deeply flavored and ready to coat every piece of pasta in the bowl.
The oven-dried tomatoes are wonderful, but I also wanted to ensure that I get a bit of intense tomato flavor and acidity in every bite, so I completed the sauce by cooking down some tomato paste, red pepper flakes, and oregano, before whisking in some white wine.
It'll look broken and greasy at first (like the photo above), but don't worry, we'll fix that before we get to the end.
Finally, we get to the barely-cooked sharp garlic. If you ever thought that bread crumbs were only around to be used as a breading for your eggplant Parm or as a crunchy topping for your mac and cheese, then you probably haven't read Russ Parson's piece on the magic of bread crumbs in The Los Angeles Times.
He's right: when you make them right (read: starting with fresh bread, pulsed until not-too-fine in a food processor, then sautéed in really good olive oil***) and add just a couple of flavorful elements—minced garlic and chopped parsley do well—you end up with a topping that adds far more than just great texture. At our place, bread crumbs go head-to-head with grated hard cheese as the pasta topping of choice.****
***or butter, if you're not vegan-inclined
****I had to physically wrestle the bowl of toasted garlicky crumbs out of my wife's hands to ensure that I'd have enough left for the rest of the pasta.
With three layer of garlic and two layers of tomato flavor in place, just a couple of small touches finish the dish off: sliced Kalamata olives and thinly sliced scallions.
I like to use a thick, tubular, ridged pasta for this dish, like rigatoni or penne rigate, the better to catch that flavorful, garlicky oil in. The key to fixing that greasy looking sauce? Pasta water. I drain my pasta about a minute before it's done cooking, reserving a half cup or so of its starchy water before adding it all to the pan with the sauce (along with everything except the bread crumbs) and bringing it to a hard simmer over high heat.
As you toss and stir the contents of the pan, the pasta finishes cooking while the mechanical action of the simmering and tossing, along with the starch in the pasta water helps the sauce come together and emulsify. What was once greasy and broken-looking becomes creamy and pasta-coating.
This is the kind of dish that's exciting with every bite, a mix of tender, chewy, and crunchy, with intense and complex flavors all coming through distinctly.
Sure, the type of layering my new running wardrobe offers has its advantages—for one thing, it can be un-layered—but until Uniqlo invents a pair of shorts***** as delicious as they are functional, I'm going to claim victory on this round.
*****Insert an "eat my shorts" joke here.