Mr. Big's Spaghetti

The name of this dish is just a joke between my sister and me inspired by a scene from one of our favorite television shows, 30 Rock. It's an iconic comedy and we both love Liz Lemon and her passion for food. In one episode, everyone is pitching new ideas to Jack Donaghy so that NBC, which is now owned by Kabletown, can generate more revenue. Liz's idea is for a remote that you can click whenever you see something you to buy while you're watching TV and the example she gives is, "Like if you're watching Sex & the City and you just have to have Mr. Big's spaghetti." This is also a rather timely post since everyone's been yammering about this being the 20th anniversary of the show.

Even though I've watched SATC several times through, I can't quite remember an episode where Mr. Big is eating spaghetti; but it's pretty specific so maybe I'll stumble across it during an E! marathon one of these days. In general, whenever I see anyone on television eating pasta in red sauce, it looks amazing to me, even though I'm not even a big fan of red sauce. I think my dislike for red sauce is due to the fact that I have a hard time overlooking the pastas that have disappointed me in the past (probably because I associate red sauce with the bland stuff they served in cafeteria lunches during grammar school). But when I see a red sauce-laden pasta on television, my imagination allows me to instead phantom-taste really intense tomato flavor with the perfect balance of sweetness and savoriness, which is what red sauce is supposed to be.

This dish is a result of that fantasy pasta I've been able to imagine in my head but rarely able to enjoy in real life. To get that really intense and sweet tomato flavor, I used tomato paste. To get delicious, savory, umami flavor, I added a few anchovies. I didn't want to add meat but I still wanted to add heartiness and substance that would make this dish able to stand alone as the star of a meal so I opted to throw in a few mushrooms. And the ingredient that ties the whole dish together is the knob of butter tossed in at the end. It just adds a really decadent mouthfeel to the dish that puts it over the top. Plus, it all comes together in about 15 minutes, which makes this a great quick dinner or lunch. This would even work as a delicious snack for me.
Ingredients [serves 2 generously]:
½ lb. spaghetti
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 3 anchovy fillets
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
4 oz. crimini mushrooms, finely chopped
1 teaspoon crushed pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
⅓ cup tomato paste
½ to 1 cup reserved pasta water
2 tablespoons butter
+ parmesan cheese

First things first, get a big pot of water on the hob over screaming high heat so it can come to a boil. While you're waiting on that, prep the mise-en-place. Mince the garlic, chop the onions, and finely chop the mushrooms. I like to slice the mushrooms and then take a knife to the pile to chop it up even further.
Grab a skillet and get it heating over medium heat. Add in a good glug of olive oil and add in the anchovies. Let them sizzle and use a spoon to stir and watch as they disintegrate into the oil. The anchovies will add a delicious salty depth of flavor.
Once the anchovies are essentially melted, add in the garlic, onions, mushrooms, crushed pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Saute and sweat until everything is softened and it smells fragrant. It will take a few minutes, maybe a bit longer if your mushrooms give off a lot of moisture.
At this point, the water should be boiling so add a good shake of salt to the pot and throw in the pasta. Stir around to make sure the noodles don't clump together.
Get back to the sauce. Add the tomato paste and stir. Saute for a few minutes until the paste is lightly caramelized. You'll know it's becoming caramelized because it will start sticking to the pan a bit and coat the bottom of the pan.
Grab a little pasta cooking water and pour about a half a cup into the sauce and stir around until a smooth, velvety sauce forms.
When the spaghetti is cooked to a couple minutes shy of al dente, add it to the pan with the sauce and a knob of butter and toss together. The pasta will finish cooking in the sauce and start to absorb all of those wonderful flavors.
Add more pasta water if you want to thin the sauce out a bit more. It's all personal preference. I tend to prefer a slightly thicker sauce but I always add in a little more water than I think I need because the noodles do absorb more moisture as they sit and I don't relish having clumpy pasta.
Grate some cheese on top and serve immediately.
Sis and I have been enjoying this as a weekend lunch every so often and we like to eat it straight out of the pan with a side of arugula dressed simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

It has the intensity of a sauce that started with a giant pot of garden-fresh and ripe tomatoes and has been cooking for several hours. But in reality, it only takes a few minutes. It's a simple-looking dish - I think it's rather beautiful - but the sauce has complex layers of flavor. And you can jazz this up however you like. If you want to make some meatballs to eat with this, that would be superb. It would also go great with some grilled Italian sausage, breaded eggplant, chicken cutlets; basically, this is the ultimate pasta dish because it is really enjoyable alone but also makes a bomb accompaniment to an assortment of proteins and vegetables.
Here's the recipe page: