Spaghetti with Crab "Gravy"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

This dish is one of those dishes that brings me instantly back in time. My neighbors growing up were Italian and made the. most. amazing. food. ever. Occasionally, I was lucky enough to be hanging around when they'd make pasta from scratch or sauce which they called "gravy." One hot night in particular I will always remember....

It was the dead of summer in Los Angeles which usually meant 90+ heat outside, and I was over next door goofing around with my friends JJ and her younger brother Steven. Lee and Philis (their grandparents with whom they lived) were busied in the kitchen making dinner: Lee always made the pasta from scratch and Phil (we called her Phil) made the sauce.I'd watch silently from the corner of the room as Lee would meticulously run the pasta dough over and over through the machine, cranking it by hand with such purpose. He was in the Pasta Zone. Not 2 feet away from him, Phil standing in front of a metal pot, gently stirring a pot of tomatoes, garlic, onions, and fresh herbs.  The smell was intoxicating as it wafted to my nose, reaching me even in the most secret of corners as I stole my transfixed look. It was then I realized I was falling in love. Falling in love with food and witnessing and learning the love and connection you must put into the foods you make. Of course JJ and Steven didn't have a clue. But I did. And Phil and Lee knew it. So they'd invite me on occasion to watch them cook and to sit down at their table, regaling me of stories from Sicily and Italy and "back in Brooklyn" when they were young. JJ and Steven would be long gone and my parents would be wondering where I was as the night grew long, and yet I stayed at the table carried off by these stories into another time, another world.

Oh how I miss those nights. How magical, how important they were and how I hold them most dear to my heart even today.

This one particular night was different. Of course I'd had the fresh pasta and the sauce from scratch many times before. But this time, this...this was special. I was shocked. Staring at me from a bowl of gorgeous pasta were whole crabs -- legs, body, eyes...everything. They must have seen the look of horror on my face, as they simply replied "just try'll love it." And so I did. The "gravy" that I'd come to know so well was extraordinary this time, bursting with a depth of flavor I hadn't known before. Later I'd come to know it was the shell of the crab itself that gave that incredible flavor. We passed around the bowl of pasta, each of us having noodles covered in this rich, deep red sea of heaven. And then came the crab.

It was messy, incredibly tasty, and fun at the same time. This is one of those Eat With Your Hands type of dishes. The napkins flowed as freely as the wine (or water in my case as I was a tad under 21) and you were quite literally "all in" at this point. You dig into the pasta, grab the sauce-slathered crab and break it in half with your hands or cracker. Take out the perfectly tender sweet crab meat with a tomato and basil perfume, then you twirl your filthy fork with spaghetti to grab more of that incredible sauce into your entire being. Laughter abounds, stories are shared, and it's a night you'll never forget.

I am so happy to finally share this recipe with you all. This is just perfect for a small dinner party at your home: intimate, light-hearted, fun that works round the year just as well in front of a roaring fire or under the summer stars. And now if you're in Lent like we are, it's a wonderful way to make an otherwise mundane Friday menu extra special, enough to rival any holiday the rest of the year. You can certainly use whole snow crabs for this (they are cheaper), but personally I am just in love with king crab legs and am fortunate up here living in the Pacific Northwest we get them pretty cheap. The key here is to use crab meat and legs still in the shell, because again, that's where you get the flavor. So leave the shelled crab meat for crab cakes and indulge in the big gorgeous legs! Also, no need to defrost them first...throw them in frozen or defrosted.

Please do enjoy this, and toast a crab leg to me!

Spaghetti with Crab "Gravy"
1/4 cup olive oil
1 white onion, chopped small
4 cloves garlic, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves (or 1 large one)
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (picked off the stem)
1 Tbsp fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 (28 oz) + 1 (14 oz (i.e. half of another can)) san marzano crushed tomatoes
splash of dry white wine (optional)
1.5 lbs frozen king crab legs
1 Tbsp capers, drained
1 lb spaghetti
grated romano cheese for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and pepper, and saute on medium-low heat until transulence, about 10 minutes. Keep the flame low and let it really caramelize nicely and sweeten up, careful not to burn. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the bay leaf, thyme, basil, pepper flakes and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes and wine (if using) and mix to combine. Let cook covered for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the crab legs (frozen) and cook on low flame for 20 minutes to let crab defrost and flavors to meld. Add the capers.

Cook spaghetti according to package instructions (usually 9 min for al dente). Add the sauce and crabs to the pasta and toss. Sprinkle with a generous amount of romano to taste and serve.

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