Thursday, November 1, 2012

Crab diabolo on pasta with cotija cheese

Inspired by a recent post on the Saveur Facebook page which featured Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, I created, by sheer alchemy (as her son Guiliano rightly claims), a simple, deliciously rich sauce comprised of three basic ingredients.  Canned plum tomatoes.  Butter.  Onion. 

It took less than an hour. 

Photo credit: Todd Colemann

This sauce is my new staple.  I was enchanted by the silkiness and texture, and the fine balance of acid and fat.  I find that it graces the most humble of dishes and is very compliant in forming the foundation of something magically delectable.  Our maiden voyage with Marcella's Sauce (as I have come to call it) was a simple dinner of thin spaghetti, a pork chop breaded with panko, Romano cheese and Penzey's Italian Herb Mix and lightly pan-fried a la Milanese, and plenty of Marcella's Sauce on both pasta and pork.  A final flourish of freshly grated Romano cheese and a crispy salad of bitter greens dressed with a bracing vinaigrette was all it took to win us over on a Monday night.

But here I must reveal the symptoms of my hoarder mentality: I didn't want to use all the sauce up just yet, even though I could make more very easily.  This sauce was so good, I wanted to dole it out sparingly, even though I always have a large can of plum tomatoes hanging around in my pantry as well as plenty of butter and onions.  The salt and pepper also called for in the recipe?  I sleep with them under my pillow.

The thought of running out of Marcella's Sauce, however, gave me a jolt of anxiety.  Running out of this sauce would be like running out of wine.  Unthinkable.

And here is where hoarder mentality has its blind spots: having Marcella's Sauce in the fridge made me over-confident about my ability to produce what I have come to think of as A Memorable Dinner.  Like having several dozen pieces of mismatched formal glassware and china and far less silverware makes me over-confident about my ability to entertain the entire editorial staff of Architectual Digest and have A Memorable Evening.  I can picture the polite and tight-lipped smiles.

Image from

A dinner of pasta with sauce (even Marcella's Sauce), a little cheese and no significant amount of protein--though it may be sufficient for some--does not give me a sense of security.  Dinner might be the last meal I ever eat should I die in the night, I reason.  What if I wake up hungry?  What if all those carbs make my blood sugar crash?  I am anxious about hunger and blood sugar for a reason: those middle-of-the-night events are disruptive to my sleep, which, as some of you know, is not something that comes to me easily.  Luckily, I am not often anxious about dying in my sleep--since there is so little of it.  I rather think I will die fully alert and conscious. 

And I'd like to think I'd handle that gracefully.  Perhaps I'll even have matching glassware, silverware and china by then.

And so, last night, forced to consider the bleak possibilities resulting from the fact that I had removed no protein from the freezer for dinner before leaving the house that morning, I ransacked the pantry in hopes of finding something that would inspire me.

Aha!  A can of Bumble Bee Brand crabmeat sat at eye level under a can of red Thai chile paste, a tin of anchovies and a package of dried shiitake mushrooms.  Where did this can of crabmeat come from?  I had no idea, since I'd like to believe that canned crabmeat is not something I'd feel compelled to put into my shopping cart.  Its texture leaves a lot to be desired and the flavor?  Well, what flavor? 

However, considering that perhaps the crabmeat had appeared in my pantry rather like manna had appeared to the Israelites, I eagerly seized the can and now had a pan and a plan:  Marcella's buttery, rich sauce would be the perfect medium for crabmeat diabolo over some leftover cooked pasta.

Psych!  You thought I was going to find a way to incorporate the chile paste, anchovies and shiitake mushrooms!  Didn't you!  Thinking about it now, Marcella's sauce would have made a lovely, rich, puttanesca-like sauce with anchovies, capers and some big, fat olives (also on the same shelf of the pantry), but I can always try that next time.
Obviously, not the same can of crabmeat that was in my pantry...the photo is too good and the lighting is much better than what's available to me in my smallish kitchen with my decrepit cell phone camera.

Into the saucepan went a big dollop of butter, some minced green onions, a fat clove of minced garlic, a very generous pinch of crushed red pepper and the drained crabmeat.  I let that simmer very gently, then added some dry white wine and a little salt, along with several heaping tablespoons of Marcella's Sauce.  I let those ingredients gently meld to preserve the structure (I was going to use the word "integrity" here, but saying that canned crabmeat has integrity is rather like saying that canned green beans have decorum) of the already overcooked canned crabmeat and then served the sauce on top of the pasta and garnished with a generous sprinkling of crumbled cotija cheese.  I confess I was too lazy to chop up some parsley for what would have been a very appropriate garnish.

This pasta was entirely satisfying, salty, rich and tangy with a pleasant heat from the crushed red pepper, and a silkiness from the butter.  Surprisingly, I could taste the sweetness of the crab.  I immediately wanted to eat it again.

Here's how you can do it:

Crab Diabolo on Pasta with Cotija Cheese

          Make the tomato sauce first; store leftovers in the freezer.  If there are any.

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion
(as published on
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed
¼ tsp. sugar
1 28-oz. can whole, peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed by hand
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered lengthwise
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Bring butter, sugar, tomatoes, and onion, to a boil in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until flavors meld and sauce is slightly reduced, about 45 minutes. Discard onion, and season sauce with salt and pepper before serving.  Makes 3 cups.

To make the crab diabolo sauce:
2 Tbs. butter
3 or 4 green onions, minced
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. (or more to taste) crushed red pepper
1 6 oz. can crabmeat, drained (or use an equivalent amount of cooked, picked crabment from the seafood counter)
kosher salt to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 to 3/4 cup Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter (see recipe above)
2 to 3 cups cooked, warm pasta
4 Tbs. crumbled cotija cheese
chopped flat leaf parsley, for garnish, optional

1.)  Heat butter in a small skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat until foaming.
2.)  Add green onions, garlic, crushed red pepper and crabmeat.
3.)  Simmer very gently for about 2 minutes, reducing heat if necessary.  You don't want to break down the crabmeat.
4.)  Add salt to taste, then add white wine and continue to simmer gently.
5.)  Add Tomato Sauce and heat through.
6.)  Divide pasta between two plates or pasta bowls and spoon diabolo sauce over pasta.
7.)  Divide cotija cheese between the plates and garnish with chopped parsley if using.  Serves 2.

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