Rapha Cooks: Pasta Orecchiette

The third installment of recipes from Matt Card comes in the form of pastas. As Cyclists we are all familiar with this carb replacement staple. Most likely after but also often times before the start of a big ride or race. Matt outlines a few ways to enhance your pasta selections in the sauce arena. This could be a big advantage, especially if you find yourself dining with Rapha Continental rider Ben Leiberson. You may recognize Mr. Leiberson from the most recent line shoot in Siracusa, Italy. You see, I have ridden with Ben many times, but I have never seen him sample his pasta with any sort of sauce. What I am wondering is if this could permeate through that rough exterior? Or, possibly, if his trip to Italy had changed his ways?

Words and Recipe by Matt Card

While Pros can stomach heaping bowls of plain boiled pasta before and after their efforts, I’m not quite so mercenary about my meals and need sauce and cheese for satisfaction. I make dozens of different pasta sauces, though my go-to favorite is a basic garlicky tomato sauce that can be prepared in the time it takes for the water to heat and pasta to cook. No matter how toasted I may be from my ride, I can whip up a batch of this sauce and get a good meal on the table before my legs give out.

As with most Italian cooking, success begins with choosing the right ingredients. For the tomatoes, I favor good-quality canned tomatoes, the flavor of which easily bests any fresh tomato outside of the late summer months. In the States, Muir Glen-brand tomatoes are some of the best. Do not be suckered by fancy imports; taste your way around brands to find what you like best.

When it comes to the pasta, my top choice is De Cecco brand, which has a particularly wheaty flavor, snappy texture, and coarse surface, which readily soaks up sauce. As for shape, don’t be hidebound by tradition—choose what you like. My favorite shape is orecchiette, or “sow’s ears,” because the uneven thickness of the little concave disks provides a variety of contrasting textures once cooked. Whichever brand or shape you choose, make sure to cook it in an abundant amount of generously salted water. Stir frequently to prevent sticking—tongs work great for this.

And finally, good-quality Parmesan is a must. Buy the real deal from a reputable source, preferably cut fresh from the big, branded wheel. Parmesan rapidly degrades and readily absorbs flavor from its surroundings, so purchase only as much as you will use within a couple of weeks and wrap it in waxed paper before placing it in a plastic bag.

I like a thick, somewhat chunky sauce, so start with canned diced tomatoes that I briefly pulse in a food processor (canned diced tomatoes are plumper, firmer, and less watery than your average crushed tomatoes) before adding them to a base of lightly browned garlic, crushed red pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil. If the tomatoes are particularly acidic, I’ll add a pinch or two of brown sugar (the earthy flavor of which works wonders on the tomato). If they are too sweet, I will dribble a bit of red or white wine in to the pot; lemon juice works in a pinch. Fresh herbs are a must; choose what is available—oregano, marjoram, thyme, mint, basil—or a mixture thereof. No dried herbs. Period. Simmer the mixture just enough to blend the flavors and thicken the texture. It really is that easy. Once the pasta is cooked, simply stir the two together, add a spoonful of fresh oil, and dust with Parmesan.

To this basic pasta, feel free to add your favorite flavorings. If I have any charcuterie in the fridge, like prosciutto or sopresatta, I’ll slice it thin and fold it into the pasta. I’ll often swap out the pasta for fresh or smoked mozzarella or make a quick herbed ricotta cheese to dollop on top. Pickled or roasted peppers taste good too, or olives—green or black. A barely set fried egg plopped on top is pretty outstanding too—and my five-year-old’s favorite lunch.

Quick Tomato Sauce

Makes enough to sauce 1 pound of pasta (4 to 6 abundant servings)

While pureed, diced tomatoes are the best choice for their chunky texture, crushed tomatoes may be used. Try to drain off some of the watery liquid in which the tomatoes are packed (if possible; the texture of crushed tomatoes varies widely from brand to brand).

1 can (28-ounces) diced tomatoes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
Large pinch red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons fresh herbs (basil, thyme, oregano, flat-leaf parsley, marjoram, mint, or combination thereof)
Brown sugar (as needed)

1 pound pasta (preferably De Cecco brand)
Fresh-grated Parmesan cheese

1. Briefly drain tomatoes and process in food processor or blender until coarsely ground; set aside.
2. Combine 3 tablespoons of olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in large saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until garlic is light golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomato, pinch salt, herbs, and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, stirring occasionally, until flavors have blended and sauce has thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and sugar.
3. To serve: Cook pasta in generously salted water. Drain, return to pan, and toss with sauce and remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Serve immediately topped with Parmesan (and additional toppings if using, see below).

Add Ins

Cured Meats: thin-sliced prosciutto, salami, sopressatta, speck, ham.
Fresh Meats: browned Italian sausage, crumbled bacon, leftover roasted meats or poultry.
Cheese: diced fresh or smoked mozzarella, Provolone (fresh or sharp), grated fresh pecorino, fresh or aged chevre, herbed ricotta (recipe follows).
Peppers: roasted or pickled (minced).
Olives: pitted and chopped green or black.
Greens: spinach or arugula (rocket)—stirred in raw and wilted.

Herbed Ricotta
Makes 4 to 6 servings

Look for good-quality ricotta containing nothing beyond milk, vinegar (or other acid), and salt. Large-scale producers typically add stabilizers, which impact the texture and flavor of the ricotta. While the herbed ricotta may be prepared up to 24 hours ahead of time, the garlic will grow pungent if stored much beyond that.

1 medium garlic clove
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano, marjoram, mint, or combination thereof
¾ cup fine-grated fresh Parmesan cheese
1 ½ cups whole-milk ricotta
Splash whole milk or cream
Ground black pepper or cayenne pepper to taste

Smash garlic together with salt and mince to fine paste. Transfer to mixing bowl and blend well with remaining ingredients. Adjust seasoning with salt and ground black pepper.