It was an ordinary weeknight, much like any other. I stood before the open refrigerator scavenging its contents for dinner. My options were few. There was cooked penne, plain and unsauced from several days prior that looked like Legos and . . . . Actually, that was pretty much it.
I stood transfixed, fingertips drumming for a few indecisive moments. Then I reached for the pasta.
I slid a cast-iron skillet over a moderate flame, poured in just enough olive oil to coat the surface and waited for a minute or two before I tipped in the contents of the container. The oil sputtered furiously as I pried apart the largest pasta clumps with a wooden spoon and then gently nudged the individual penne into a single layer. Then I stood back and barely tended the skillet at all, resisting the urge to stir the pasta more than every so often.
The contact with the hot skillet dramatically altered the texture of the starch. What was moments before cold and gummy was now deep golden, slightly blistered and just this side of crunchy. Crisped, rather.
The surface gave way -- shattered, really -- at the touch of a fork to reveal an interior that was even more profoundly altered. In sharp contrast to the exterior, it was remarkably light, more a puff of hot air than anything belonging to the realm of solids. The pasta had been elevated to a lofty alter-ego by the hot skillet and oil, transformed in the same way as certain other cold starches such as leftover boiled potatoes or slices of cold polenta.
Countless home cooks before me have come to this same revelation.
"My grandmother used to do it with leftover spaghetti from lunch," says Roberto Donna, chef and owner of Galileo Restaurant downtown. She would start with leftover pasta that had been tossed with tomato sauce. Once sauced, the long, slender strands of cold pasta formed a tangle of sorts that packed easily in a pan. She would saute it with just a touch of oil so that it would crisp around the edges. "It was always the best dish. My grandfather and I used to fight for it," adds Donna.
That night, I had tossed plain pasta into the skillet. Then I fried a couple of eggs in a separate skillet, seasoned them with plenty of cracked black pepper and perched them atop the crisped penne, relying on the runny yolks to create a sauce of sorts. On subsequent scavenging nights, I have alternately paired the crisped pasta with a tomato and basil sauce spooned straight from the jar, leftover roast beef ragout, sauteed garlicky greens, coarsely chopped Cerignola olives mashed with lemon zest, black pepper and copious amounts of olive oil. And, on some meager nights, nothing but a drizzle of a mild Spanish Arbequina olive oil and coarse sea salt.
Despite its bewitching effect, crisped pasta is simple, if not unexpected, fare. It may not merit placement on expense-account restaurant menus or even common cookbook pages. But boy is it good.
I prefer plain pasta so that nothing can run interference between hot skillet and cold pasta. Using pasta that has been tossed in tomato sauce impedes the crisping of the pasta. Plain pasta also offers a lot more versatility once it comes from the skillet. You may sauce it according to whim, whereas with sauced pasta the topping is already entirely determined.
Short, tubular pasta like penne is easier to work with than long strands of spaghetti or linguine. Besides, the thicker the pasta, the airier the interior becomes.
The only steadfast rule is that the crisping cannot be rushed. Heat the flame too high or the pasta too long and what emerges are crisp semolina shards that poke you in the cheek as surely and painfully as metal wires after an orthodontist checkup.
To accentuate the contrast between regular and crisped pasta, use a cast-iron rather than a nonstick skillet.
And to maximize the potential for crisping, use only cooked pasta that has been refrigerated for several hours. Using freshly cooked pasta makes for dense, gummy crisped pasta rather than ethereally light crisped pasta.
1 to 2 servings
The concept couldn't be simpler. The execution is a tad tricky: If the flame is too high, the pasta will turn sharp and crunchy. But if the fire is too low, the pasta will refuse to turn light and airy. It may take a couple of tries to get it just right.
Cold cooked pasta, preferably penne, either plain or lightly sauced
Pasta sauce or other toppings (suggestions follow)
Place a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat. Add just enough oil to barely cover the bottom of the skillet and heat for a couple of minutes until hot but not smoking.
Add a couple of handfuls of pasta, in clumps if necessary, and use a wooden spoon to gently level the pasta into a single layer. Do not crowd the skillet. Cook, without stirring or even so much as peeking at the bottom of a single piece of pasta, until the pasta begins to blister, crisp and turn golden brown on the bottom, at least 2 minutes. If using penne, use the wooden spoon or a spatula, flip the pasta in chunks, much as you would a hash. If using spaghetti or linguine, wait a minute or two longer until the pasta forms a crisped nest and then deftly attempt to flip it all at once. Continue to cook, increasing the heat slightly if necessary, until the pasta is slightly crisp, golden and oddly puffed on the other side, about 3 minutes or so. Do not turn your back to wash the dishes or open a bottle of wine. Transfer the pasta to a plate and sprinkle it immediately with sea salt. Top, if desired, with sauce or other toppings.
Per serving (using 3 ounces pasta): 376 calories, 11 gm protein, 64 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 239 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Possible Crisped Pasta Toppings
Green Olive and Lemon Relish: On a cutting board, use the flat side of a chef's knife to smash several large green olives, such as Cerignola. Remove and discard the pits and coarsely chop the flesh. Sprinkle some lemon zest over the olives, scrape the mixture into a bowl and add enough oil to bind the ingredients together. Season with black pepper to taste.
Artichoke and Parmesan Sauce: Drain, rinse and pat dry some jarred or canned artichokes. In a skillet over medium-low heat, heat 2 or 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil just until the garlic begins to turn golden at the edges. Add the artichokes and heat, stirring occasionally, until warmed through. Transfer to a plate or cutting board, sprinkle with thinly shaved or grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese to taste. Use the back of a fork to smash the artichoke mixture into a coarse paste. Season with black pepper to taste.
Asparagus Saute: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat a thinly sliced clove of garlic in just enough oil to barely coat the bottom. Add a few handfuls of trimmed pencil-thin asparagus spears cut into 1-inch lengths and cook, stirring only occasionally, until the asparagus becomes lightly browned and almost crisp at the tips, 5 to 7 minutes. It may be necessary to reduce the heat. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and grated lemon zest or pecorino cheese to taste.
Fresh Tomato and Basil Jumble: In a bowl, gently stir together some coarsely chopped ripe tomatoes, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, a handful of torn fresh basil leaves, about 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar, sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste. Set aside for a few minutes. Stir again, being sure the sugar is dissolved. Based on a recipe in Donna Hay's "Modern Classics: Book 1" (Morrow, 2002).
Wilted Garlicky Greens: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat a few tablespoons of oil and 2 to 3 thinly sliced cloves of garlic until the garlic is fragrant and slightly golden. Add several handfuls of rinsed, dried and coarsely chopped Swiss chard leaves and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted and, if desired, slightly crisped at the edges. Season with salt and pepper to taste.