Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sunday Recipe: Hot, Hot, Hot Fra Diavolo Sauce with Casareccia

The first time I had a fra diavolo sauce that blew my hair back was at a little joint in Boston's North End (pictured here. Yes, the lines are like that. No, I am not in that photo.) It was spicy and fresh -- not to wax poetic, but it tasted like sunshine.

Fra Diavolo is a spicy sauce meaning 'the devil's brother.' It is generally paired with pasta and/or seafood. (At Giacomo's, I had it with linguini and langostines. I have posted a variation on this sauce -- here -- paired with polenta.) In the years since my trip to Giacomo's, I have made fra diavolo probably hundreds of times, amidst various seasons, but right now really is best this time of year to make -- when you can easily lay your hands on vine-ripened, home-grown, dripping with flavor tomatoes and fresh hot peppers.

This is one of those dishes that just screams the end of summer to me. I like to make a big, big batch of this, so that I can eat it immediately as well as toss several containers in the freezer for a drearier time of year. This sauce, let me just say, is not for the faint of heart. It should be noted that some make the sauce with chili peppers and no tomatoes, but I like a combination of both, which does allow the chef to adjust the heat. (And, when working with hot peppers, you kind of never know what you're getting -- the heat can vary from plant to plant and even pepper to pepper, in my experience.) Onward, bravely!

You will need:
15 to 22 roma tomatoes (buy a large basket from your local farmers market, if possible) 
3 to 8 banana peppers (again -- the fresher the better)
1 bulb of garlic
olive oil
a few sprigs of fresh basil
1 cup of red wine

The prep:
First, pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees. Then head outside and turn on your grill and close it, so that it can get good and hot.

Cut the roma tomatoes in half lengthwise. Place flat-side down in a large glass baking dish. Add all of the garlic cloves after you have cleaned and peeled them. Place a few sprigs of fresh thyme atop the tomatoes. Drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle liberally with kosher salt. Pop in the oven. (Note, I generally need two or three glass baking dishes to accommodate all the tomatoes.) Roast for 30-45 minutes (but check them after 30 minutes -- you want them to start breaking down, but you don't want them to dry out.)

Head out to your grill. Place the hot peppers on the grill and close the lid. In a minute or two, you'll need to turn them. You want them crispy and brown/black -- really charred -- to get the best flavor. Once you have charred them on all sides, remove to a large glass bowl and immediately cover the bowl with saran wrap. Set aside for about 30 minutes, so that the peppers can steam themselves and also cool off enough to handle.

With the tomatoes out of the oven, turn your attention back to the peppers. They should have kind of collapsed softly in the bowl. To clean the peppers, remove the stem and the bulb at the top with seeds. Peel off all the charred skin (all the skin because that stuff is nasty). Also, as you're cleaning, you may want to open them up and pull out the ribs and any rogue seeds left lurking. Note:  DO NOT run them under water when cleaning. You will lose too much flavor if you do. However, I often rinse my hands in between cleaning peppers, so that's fine.

Once the peppers are clean, coarsely dice and place in the food processor.

By now, the tomatoes should be a wee bit cooler. Peel off the tomato skins. Add the tomatoes and roasted garlic to the food processor with the peppers (you may have to do this in several batches.) I run the food processor until they are smooth, but if you like chunky sauce, you can opt for that.

Heat a large, deep sautee pan. Add the tomato/pepper sauce. Bring to a simmer and add the wine. Let that simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes, so that the alcohol flavor of the wine cooks out. Taste for salt, etc. [If you're eating the sauce immediately, you probably have way, way too much here for one pound of pasta, so remove about 2/3 of the sauce from the pan and set that aside for a later date. Again, this stuff freezes really well.]

With fra diavolo, I like a very hearty, toothsome pasta that can stand up to the bold flavors of the peppers and tomatoes. If you have access to a good market, I recommend picking up an abruzzo casareccia (pictured above). To cook the pasta, as always, bring a large sauce pot of water to a boil. Salt it well (so that it tastes like the ocean). Add the pasta and cook to al dente. Quickly drain the pasta and add to the sauce pan and toss for about a minute. When you serve, add a few sprigs of fresh basil. And, of course, some grated pecorino romano cheese is required. Mangia!

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