The Little Black Dress of Dinner

Pasta with Smoked Salmon "Acqua al 2"


Anyone who purports to know even a little about fashion knows that the one indispensable item in any woman’s wardrobe is the little black dress. It’s elegant, it’s sophisticated, it’s perfect for any occasion, and most importantly, you don’t have to think about it; you just throw it on and you’re dressed for anything, regardless of which way the fickle winds of fashion happen to be blowing the rest of your attire.

Well, believe it or not, I’ve actually survived for thirty years without a little black dress (in truth, I’ve bought several over the years, but none has ever been that black dress), but I do have something in my arsenal I couldn’t survive without. Let’s call it the little black dress of dinner.

To me, this edible little black dress represents nothing short of the holy grail of recipes. I mean, let’s face it – as much as I love to cook, sometimes I want to invite people over without having to spend twenty-four hours sweating into a pot of demiglace. I want to make something that’s impressive and unusual, but also foolproof and affordable. I want most of the ingredients to be already sitting in my refrigerator, or at most a fifteen-minute trip to the supermarket away. Heck, I want something that I can start making twenty minutes before my guests walk in the door and still be absolutely certain it will knock their socks into orbit around Pluto. I want something like this salmon pasta.

Recipes like this are, unfortunately, all too rare. Most dishes designed to impress are full of complicated techniques, esoteric ingredients and tedious prep work. This one couldn’t be farther from those if it tried. It takes literally twenty minutes from start to finish, pasta boiling time included (well, maybe a couple more if you want to get your onions nice and caramelized), and chances are, you’ve got more than half of the ingredients on hand already.

Most importantly, though, it is really, really good. I confirmed that first time I tasted it, ten years ago at the bustling Florentine restaurant Acqua al 2 (which, I see through the miracle of the internet, not only continues to flourish, but now has a sister restaurant in San Diego. Go figure!). Their gimmick was (and still is, it seems) a pasta sampler, a succession of five plates of pasta in every shape and size imaginable, each dressed with one of their legendary sauces: tangy salsa verde, earthy funghi porcini, spicy eggplant and tomato. Actually, I’m just guessing about those, as apart from this dish, I can’t recall a single thing I ate there that night. I only remember, midway through that parade of pasta, being floored by one of the most ridiculously tasty sauces I had ever eaten, atop noodles or not. It was salmony, but not too salmony, slightly sweet, subtly garlicky and thick with cream – I swear, if I had spoken better Italian, I would have asked to kiss the chef’s feet, or at least, would have asked for a bathtub-sized carton of the stuff to take home so I could have spent hours dissecting its components.

But I didn’t, so as soon as I got home I tinkered and tinkered until I managed to recreate that pasta, and even now, ten years on, it’s one of my most treasured recipes. Blushing pink and scandalously rich, it somehow manages to straddle that elusive line between sophistication and familiarity, comfort and excitement. I have served it to salmon-lovers, salmon-haters and salmon-ambivalents, and not a single one has ever refused seconds (or thirds, when they’re available). I even sleep better at night knowing this recipe is there, since one of my recurring nightmares involves an Iron-Chef-like scenario of having exactly one hour to whip up dinner for dozens of important people.

In that scenario, the food, thanks to this pasta, would be no problem; it’s just too bad I would have to spend the remaining forty minutes trying to decide what on earth to wear.

Pasta with Smoked Salmon "Acqua al 2"

As I’ve said, this is a perfect dish for company, but I also make it sometimes for just the two of us, in which case I cut the quantities in half. You’ll want to use a smoked salmon of reasonably good quality; I find that the ultra-cheap kinds are often unbearably salty and can have some textural issues, but whether it’s been hot or cold smoked doesn’t really make a difference since the salmon ends up cooked anyway (in case you don’t know the difference, cold-smoked usually comes in thin, supple slices and looks quite similar to raw, whereas hot smoked is usually sold in a chunk and has more of a firm, "cooked fish" appearance). Oh, and don’t tell any Italian grandmothers, but I have been known to occasionally gild this lily with some freshly-grated parmigiano reggiano (I know, blasphemy!), but strictly speaking, it really doesn’t need it.
Serves: 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2/3 cup (160ml) dry white wine or vermouth
1 8oz (200g) package cream cheese, cubed
1 cup (250ml) heavy cream
2 tablespoons tomato paste (concentrate)
1 tablespoon sugar, or more to taste
8-10oz (250-300g) smoked salmon (either hot or cold smoked works fine), cut in 1/2-inch (1cm) pieces
salt, to taste
1 lb. (450g) dried pasta, something hearty (my favorites for this dish are tagliatelle, penne, and bucatini)

lemon thyme or regular thyme, for garnish (optional)

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion until golden and starting to caramelize, about 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté just until it loses its raw edge, about one minute more. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add the cream cheese, stirring until it melts, and then the cream. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat slightly and stir in the tomato paste, sugar and smoked salmon. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 more minutes, until the sauce is quite thick. Taste and add salt and/or a little more sugar as needed.

Cook the pasta in the boiling salted water until just al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the pasta water. In a large bowl or the empty pasta pot, toss the pasta with the sauce, adding in a little of the pasta water if needed to help the sauce coat the noodles evenly.

Serve immediately, garnished, if you like, with few leaves of lemon thyme. Unfortunately this sauce doesn’t reheat very well, but that’s is a great excuse not to have any leftovers. 🙂