If you took my recent advice, and picked up a bottle of colatura di alici, then this pasta primer is for you. For those who are still on the fence about Italy's aged fish sauce, hopefully this guide to one of the easiest spaghetti dinners around will help sway you in the right direction. Here's how to make spaghetti con la colatura di alici.
This dish is basically a no-cook-sauce version of aglio e olio that's amped up on umami, thanks to the addition of colatura. As discussed in my ingredient explainer, colatura is best deployed as a finishing seasoning in order to taste and appreciate its savory depth. When subjected to high heat, a lot of its nuance is lost.
For recipes that call for cooking with fish sauce, you are better off using a much more affordable Southeast Asian variety than pricey colatura—it would be like seasoning a pot of blanching water with Maldon sea salt. The only heat that the colatura is subjected to in this recipe comes when it is tossed with cooked spaghetti and a splash of pasta cooking water right before serving. By not dulling its flavor, this pasta allows the colatura to really shine.
I bring a few quarts of very lightly seasoned water to a boil, and then drop in the spaghetti. As with pasta alla gricia, ingredients in the sauce will provide plenty of salinity to the dish—in this case the saltiness comes from colatura, rather than gricia's combination of guanciale and Pecorino Romano—and you don't want to turn it into a salt lick. I like to use just a single teaspoon of salt for three quarts of water, but you can also leave the water completely unseasoned if you are limiting your sodium intake. Use as little water as possible to cook the spaghetti, in order to create super-starchy pasta water, which will help bind the sauce together later on.
While the pasta cooks, whisk together a few tablespoons of colatura, a minced garlic clove, and a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes in a really large bowl. The biggest bowl you have. Seriously. Because the sauce and pasta come together completely off-heat, they will need to be vigorously stirred and tossed together to form a creamy, emulsified sauce. You won't have the help of a hot skillet to achieve that proper pasta-finishing emulsion, so you will need the real estate of a giant bowl to effectively toss and coat the pasta without having to manhandle it.
Whisk extra-virgin olive oil into the colatura mixture to form what is essentially a colatura vinaigrette (I know, there's no vinegar, but we've been down this road before). If you want to call this dish a new-school pasta salad, be my guest.
Before the pasta finishes cooking, I steal a couple of tablespoons of pasta water from the pot and whisk them into the colatura dressing to form an emulsion. It's important to emulsify the colatura dressing before tossing it with the cooked spaghetti and more pasta water. Trying to build a creamy sauce from the ground up, once all of the components are combined, is a lot more difficult. This is the pasta-saucing equivalent of hand-whisked mayonnaise that requires careful emulsion- and emotion-management, while sauce-building in a hot skillet is the toss-it-all-together immersion blender method.
When the pasta reaches al dente perfection, add it to the bowl with a half cup of starchy pasta water (this is why we didn't aggressively season the pasta water earlier), and a fistful of chopped parsley. Now it's time to toss. Toss (or rapidly stir, with a gentle touch so that you don't mangle the noodles) the pasta enthusiastically, until the pasta water and colatura mixture come together to form a creamy sauce that coats the spaghetti, and pools ever-so-slightly around the noodles.
Next, add a scattering of breadcrumbs that have been lightly toasted in olive oil. The breadcrumbs do two things: They provide a little texture and crunch to the dish, but, even more importantly, they strengthen the emulsion of the sauce, helping to prevent it from breaking (think of how bread helps bind together gazpacho).
Keep tossing away to incorporate the breadcrumbs, adding a splash or two more of starchy water if necessary—you don't want the pasta to be dry.
To finish things off, I add a little finely grated lemon zest for brightness and a hint of acidity. Lemon juice has the tendency to downplay the flavor of the colatura, which is the star of this dish, so I just use zest for this recipe. Then you need to taste the pasta for seasoning. It should be very well-seasoned thanks to the colatura, but not salty. I like to add a final splash of colatura at the last second to make sure its flavor is front and center, but you can make that call for yourself. What I do know is that there aren't many dishes that come together in 20 minutes and pack this amount of intense savory depth, and I think it makes the case for colatura as a weeknight dinner secret weapon that is worth splurging on.