Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On a Whim: Spaghetti al Limone

I tend to be a planner, and this applies very much to my cooking habits. Most of the time, I take time out of my weekend to plan out meals for the week ahead. I try to incorporate variety into the seven meals, use up ingredients I have around, and keep things exciting and mouth-watering. By doing this instead of winging it and coming up with dinner on the day I eat it, I save money by not buying a lot of ingredients that will go bad before they are used up, I eat healthier by having a plan, and I save time by not having to figure out what to cook every day. Sometimes, though, I get a whim that I just can’t ignore. When I get a craving—or, we could call it an inspiration—like this, I’ll often give in to it. I never regret it when I do.

This happened to me recently. I was reading another blogger’s post and she mentioned the spaghetti al limone she had recently, and suddenly, dinner had been decided. The rich, yet, somehow, almost refreshing taste of this pasta dish was what I wanted. Fortunately, like many Italian masterpieces, the recipe is incredibly simple, and I already had all of the ingredients on hand. I say, it was a sign.
A lemon, some parmesan, white wine, heavy cream, butter, spaghetti pasta, salt, and pepper are all that’s required. A note on parmesan: good food deserves good parmesan, so don’t skimp out and buy any of the pre-grated stuff, or—heaven forbid—that white powder that Kraft likes to call parmesan. Is this the good stuff pricey? Yup, it sure is, but it’s totally worth it. Keep in mind that you only use a little at a time and it keeps really well, so you won’t have to buy it often. Or, you can do what I do, and buy the ends. A lot of grocery stores will do this: they will sell the ends of the parmesan wheels and other odd little pieces in bags for about half the price they sell the big chunks for. The quality is the same; you’re just not getting one solid, perfect piece.
I used this recipe from the New York Times as a guideline, but made some modifications. A few things in the recipe’s directions don’t really make sense, so I think I’ve written a clearer recipe here. Like I said, though, it’s pretty straight-forward. To start, reduce wine and with lemon zest and some juice until the flavour is concentrated and the consistency is syrupy. Then, incorporate the cream into the reduction.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in salted water. When it is finished, do not drain it! Use a pasta lifter to lift the cooked spaghetti right out of the water and into the pan containing the cream sauce. With a toss and maybe a little extra pasta water, you’re almost done. Finish it off with some butter and plenty of parmesan.
Finally, plate it simply in a shallow bowl and top with a little more parm and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. In about half an hour, dinner is served, and inspiration is realized.
Sometimes, plans are good. They keep life organized, and they keep you on the right track. But you can’t always follow the plan, and that’s a good thing too.

Spaghetti al Limone
Adapted from The New York Times, January 31, 2007
Serves 4

1 lemon
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
1 lb. spaghetti
3 tbsp. butter, cut into pieces
4 oz. freshly grated parmesan cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Zest the lemon into a large skillet. Juice the lemon, add about a tablespoon to the skillet and reserve the rest. Add the wine to the skillet. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Let the liquid reduce by about three-quarters, until it has a thicker, more syrupy consistency. Keep a close eye on it—you don’t want it to over-reduce, and this will happen quickly.

Once the desired consistency is reached, remove the skillet from the heat and gradually stir in the cream. Put it back on the heat and allow it to come to a simmer again and reduce by about a quarter. Stir in the rest of the lemon juice. Season with about a quarter teaspoon of sea salt, and a quick grind of black pepper.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of salted water until it is al dente. When it is cooked, turn off the heat and do not drain it. Use a pasta lifter to lift the spaghetti right out of the water and into the skillet containing the sauce. Set the skillet over low heat and toss to coat the pasta with the sauce. If the combination is looking dry, add a little bit of pasta water. Drop the butter in and sprinkle with most of the parmesan, reserving a little for garnish. Toss again and add pasta water if necessary. Taste and season with salt, as needed. Plate in shallow bowls and finish with a dusting of parmesan, and a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper.

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