Friday, October 08, 2004


Of course, this wasn’t always its name. When I got from whatever cookbook I got it from, years ago, it was called something descriptive and boring, like “Spaghetti With Garlic, Hot Pepper Flakes, and Toasted Bread Crumbs.” No, it’s not the hot pepper flakes that inspired me to change the name. It’s the fact that this is the only pasta that has ever injured me. About four years ago, when A and I were in the midst of the long-distance portion of our relationship, he was visiting me in St. Paul, it was our last night together before he returned to L.A., and I was making this pasta for dinner. I came to the part of the recipe where I was supposed to reserve and set aside ½ cup of the water the spaghetti was boiling in. Just before I turned the stove off and drained the pasta, I took my measuring cup and carefully dipped it into the pot to scoop out some boiling water. At this moment, a drop of water splashed up and splattered my hand, startling me so much that my hand jumped. Which caused me to jerk the measuring cup violently. Which meant that I threw boiling water directly into my own face. Which now I find really funny, but at the time I wasn’t amused. I wasn’t dramatically hurt (my glasses protected me from most of it; I only sustained a tiny pink burn on my temple that faded in a few days), but it stung like hell, and the end of our visits was always an emotional time for me anyway, so I basically threw a big fit—I remember writhing around on the floor at one point in pain and annoyance. A was very calm and helpful and plied me with jokes and cold compresses, and in half an hour or so I was laughing about it. And after that, “face-burning spaghetti” just became the easiest way to describe it. “That pasta with the garlic and red pepper flakes and tomatoes and bread crumbs” just isn’t specific enough, but with “face-burning” we both know exactly what we’re referring to.

This is an intense pasta, so the name works in more than just an inside-joke sense. It’s one of my favorites, actually, despite the traumatic memory associated with it. There aren’t any surprises here, just a few basic flavors that go together very, very well, applied in generous quantities. I never feel the urge to make just a marinara-style tomato spaghetti sauce, because this has pretty much the same ingredients but is so much better. You really gotta try this—just be careful with the pasta water, OK?

Note: I made the bread crumbs from part of a French baguette I had in the freezer. I always say I’m going to make crumbs the easy smart-person way, in the blender, and then I think about how annoying the blender is to wash, and then I start tearing the bread into crumbs with my hand, and The Simpsons is on, and before I know it I’ve got 2 cups of bread crumbs. But I’m not suggesting this is at all the best way to go about it.

8 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
1 pound spaghetti
6-12 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¼-½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 large tomatoes, cored and diced
1 cup fresh Italian parsley, minced
½ teaspoon salt

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the pasta. When it boils, add the spaghetti and cook until al dente.

2. While the pasta water heats, put 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, and when it's warm add the crumbs and stir them thoroughly so they all soak up some oil. Cook them until they get nice and crisp and golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Scrape them into a bowl and set them aside, and put the skillet back on the stove. (I love when recipes thoughtfully allow you to conserve dishes.)

3. Add the rest of the oil to the still-hot skillet, then add the garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes and sauté a few minutes. (The recipe says 1 minute, but I always seem to end up doing it a little longer than that as I’m waiting for the pasta to finish cooking. I don’t think this matters, the tomatoes just break down a little more. But still, they should only be cooked briefly. If you're still waiting around for the pasta to finish, you can remove the skillet from the heat until you're ready to continue.)

4. When the pasta is done, scooped out ½ cup of the boiling water with caution, ease, and grace, then drain the pasta. Mix the pasta water, parsley, and salt into the skillet with the tomatoes, remove it from the heat, and toss it with the spaghetti. Dish the pasta out into serving/storage bowls, and sprinkle bread crumbs over each portion.

Serves: 6
Time: 30 minutes

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