KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 16 — The details matter. Small changes can create big results. Take cooking, for instance; tiny tweaks can make or break a recipe.
We often fall back on tried and tested standards because they can be counted on. One such staple in my repertoire is pasta, specifically the very basic aglio olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and red chillies) approach.
There are variations to this Italian dish, of course. Spaghetti is the default pasta though any long pasta works, be it tagliatelle, fettuccine or linguine. The peperoncino can be fresh red chillies, dried red chillies or crushed red chilli flakes.
I often add prawns to my aglio olio e peperoncino, an addition purists might frown on. (Since they’re already disapproving, might I add that replacing the prawns with thick discs of king trumpet mushrooms, also known as eryngii, can make it vegetarian-friendly while retaining quite a bit of heft.)
But sometimes I’d like a little bit more. Don’t we all?
Butter makes everything better. It feels like things are beginning to slowly take a turn for the better in our lives too. To celebrate that, carefully and in a small way, I look towards butter. It makes bread better (especially in French toast) and miso ramen too, so why not pasta?
Perhaps this is one way of elevating our always trusty aglio olio (sans the peperoncino here, though you can always add a hit of spice when garnishing; more on this later). There are other ways too.
Why not amp up the seafood flavours by adding scallops, in addition to my usual go-to prawns? Known as hotate in Japanese, these meaty molluscs offer a different sort of texture to the dish and a lovely sweet-briny taste.
The surprise is in including a touch of South-east Asia with fish sauce, specifically the Thai variety known as nam pla. It’s a pantry staple for me thanks to its pungent burst of umami. Consider this the “Thai parmesan”, if you will, though the fermented sauce is in a class of its own.
So what do we have here? Garlic, of course, as the aromatic base. Extra virgin olive oil and rich butter. Prawns and scallops. And a dash of concentrated umami thanks to the Thai fish sauce.
The result is a humble yet extraordinary pasta dish, creamy rich and delicately funky, full of promise for all the best days yet to come.
SCALLOP & PRAWN TAGLIATELLE IN GARLIC BUTTER ‘NAM PLA’ SAUCE
A little butter goes a long way. By not using too much, we prevent the pasta from being too cloying or “oily” (though that might be a misguided view, given the olive oil ensures the strands of pasta are shiny-slick).
Maybe I’m kidding myself here but I feel that using butter instead of cream is a touch less decadent. So we may enjoy this creamy (but cream-free) pasta without guilt. Not much guilt, anyway.
As I do not want this dish to be overly spicy, I have eschewed the traditional peperoncino that is bloomed in the hot olive oil to release all its heat. Instead, sprinkling some sliced cili padi (as well as cilantro leaves) when plating ensures the spicy flavours are fresher and less fiery.
What separates the wheat from the chaff is the amount of loving care put in. Despite all the rhapsodising above, we aren’t really adding all that many extra ingredients. These, alone, will not make the dish extraordinary.
A touch more attention — to the details, to the imagined final dish — will make the difference. Rich, creamy and full of umami, this “tagliatelle hotate” will have you craving seconds.
350g tagliatelle (linguine, fettuccine or other long pasta may also be used)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g unsalted butter
2-3 cloves minced garlic
10-12 medium sized prawns
1 tablespoon nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
For garnishing: sliced cili padi and cilantro leaves
Fill a large pot of water. Salt generously (until it “tastes like the sea”, as some chefs would advise). Bring to a boil.
Once the water has come to a boil, add the tagliatelle. Stir briskly until the noodles are submerged. Cook for about 1-2 minutes less than the package instructions in order to get it al dente.
While the tagliatelle is cooking, preheat a non-stick pan over medium high heat. Pat the scallops dry with a paper towel to remove any extra moisture (which would cause the scallops to steam in the hot oil rather than sear nicely).
Season the dry scallops with salt and pepper. Once the pan is hot, add the extra virgin olive oil followed by the scallops. Cook the scallops for about two minutes without moving them.
While the scallops are cooking, give your tagliatelle a quick stir to ensure they are cooking evenly. You might want to test a strand of tagliatelle to check its doneness, but generally the 1-2 minutes less than the package instructions approach works.
Flip the scallops over and add the butter, garlic and prawns. The prawns, in particular, cook very quickly so watch them carefully. Allow the scallops to cook for about another minute, adding the fish sauce towards the end of the cooking time.
Drain the tagliatelle, reserving some pasta water. Add the pasta to the pan of scallops and prawns, and toss to mix well. If it’s too dry, you may add some pasta water to moisten it but this isn’t a “wet” cream sauce so don’t expect too much sauce.
Transfer to plates and garnish with sliced cili padi and cilantro leaves. Season further with more salt and black pepper, if desired. Serve immediately.
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