Sunday, June 01, 2014

Sopa Seca (aka Mexican Spaghetti)

It doesn't need saying that technology can connect us in big, profound ways. But it can also connect us in lovely little ways too. The other night, a friend posted that he was dealing with an unseasonably cold Philadelphia evening by cooking up some beans and pasta. And I was able to sort of collapse time and space and virtually join him, because, 3,000 miles away, I was doing the same thing. In Andrew's case, it was a delicious-looking bowl of pasta fagioli, with heirloom white beans and mixed-up Italian pasta. And in my house, it was a long-simmered pot of clean-out-the-pantry black and red beans (salt-soaked, of course). And, starring in the role of noodles, this sopa seca. Or, as I've been calling it, Mexican spaghetti.

This version of sopa seca, a beloved humble casserole, is from the great Diana Kennedy. And it is ridiculously satisfying. It's got all the things you want from a plate of pasta: comfort and carbs and sweet-tangy tomato sauce. But even better, the sauce is cooked down and oven-baked until it's an almost jammy backdrop, and — most importantly — spiked with smoky-hot chipotle pepper. And then things just get better, with a sprinkling of salty cheese, sour crema, and some bright leaves of cilantro.

I know I'll be coming back to this recipe again and again — especially on colder nights, when I need a bit of oven-baked comfort (and a bit of spice). It's one of those great dishes that manages to be both familiar and exciting. And it's one of those great dishes I'd like to share with all of my friends — whether it's at my table, or across the internet.

Sopa Seca (aka Mexican Spaghetti)

adapted from Diana Kennedy via Saveur, with thanks to Bon Appetempt for flagging
serves 4 

Pureeing and cooking down the tomato sauce takes some time, but yields a crazy delicious result. Next time (and lo, there will be a next time) I'm aiming to double the sauce, then freeze half after cooking it down, to have on hand to make this an even easier weeknight supper.

3-4 canned chipotle chiles in adobo, depending on your taste for heat
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 (15-oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes in juice
1/2 small white onion, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons high-heat oil, such as canola or grapeseed
8 ounces fideos, or vermicelli noodles broken into 3-inch pieces (I tend to buy these short little noodles from the local Middle Eastern store, which work quite well)
2/3 cup chicken or vegetable stock (Kennedy calls for 1/2 cup, but I generally prefer fully cooked to al dente, so added a splash more and it worked quite well)
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

crumbled cotija or feta cheese
sour cream or crema (or your current favorite yogurt)
handful cilantro, washed and roughly chopped
a side of beans and avocado (optional)

Purée the chipotles, garlic, tomatoes, and onion in a blender until very smooth, at least 2 minutes. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a big oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of the pasta and cook, stirring, until lightly browned and toasted, ~2-3 minutes. Scoop out of the pan, set aside, and toast the remaining noodles. Scoop those out of the pan as well, and place with the others.

Return the skillet to heat, and pour in the tomato mixture. Beware the spatter! Cook, stirring occasionally, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated (~15-20 minutes). Add the stock, stir and cook another minute, then turn off the heat and add the noodles. Stir to combine, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

While the tomato mixture is cooking down, preheat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. When the pasta has been added and seasoned, cover the pan with foil, and place in the oven. Bake until the pasta is tender and the sauce is absorbed, ~10 minutes. NOTE: If you don't have an oven-proof skillet, you can transfer the contents of an ordinary skillet to an oiled 8-inch casserole dish at this point, and cover/bake that (which is actually what Kennedy recommends, but I'm a one-pot gal myself whenever possible).

To serve, divide onto plates, and let diners top with cheese, drizzle with crema, and sprinkle with cilantro as desired. Enjoy hot, with beans, avocado, and/or salad on the side.


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