THE SECRET IS IN THE WATER
Every year about this time, the market stalls at the Greenmarket are piled high with sweet, burgundy red beets. I lug home big bunches, roast them either in the slow cooker or in the oven, then toss them with vinaigrette, slice them for composed salads, or saute them to make this gorgeous pasta.
Don’t let the way it looks scare you off. Though it has no tomatoes, no cheese, no meat, or cream, it is full of flavor, really easy, and quite dazzling to behold. I first came across it in a little beachside town in Emilia Romagna. We had stopped at a busy trattoria for dinner. All around me families were gobbling up bowls of pasta and piles of fried seafood. Just then, a waiter dashed by with big steaming bowls of bright pink-red pasta. When I finally flagged him down, I asked what it was. With a laugh he replied, “Spaghetti with Rubies, Signora!” Of course I ordered it and though it seemed so simple, it was unlike any other pasta I had tried. I couldn’t get the recipe, but when I went home, I tried to figure out how to make it. First, I tried boiling the pasta and beets in the same water but that didn’t do it. Then I considered making fresh pasta from scratch with pureed beets. But the one thing I was certain of was that the recipe was made with beets and boxed dried pasta.
Finally I came up with this recipe, a simple variation on Spaghetti Aglio Olio. You can roast the beets a day or two ahead of time, then quickly saute the beets while the pasta is cooking. The secret is the pasta cooking water. When the pasta is ready, grab a cup and scoop out some water. Drain the pasta and toss it in the pan with the beets and some of the hot, salty water. Toss, toss, toss until the pasta is pink and just al dente.
I made it the other night for friends, followed by grilled swordfish steaks topped with a chopped fresh tomato and basil salsa and arugula sprouts. It was a perfect end-of-summer meal.
SPAGHETTI WITH RUBIES
(Adapted from A Fresh Taste of Italy, by Michele Scicolone)
2 bunches of fresh beets (8 medium beets, about 2 pounds), tops and tails trimmed
1/3 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Coarse salt to taste
1 pound spaghetti or linguine
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Divide the beets between two sheets of foil. Wrap the beets in the foil and place them on a baking sheet. Roast for 1 hour or until tender when pierced with a knife.
To prepare them in a slow cooker, place the trimmed beets in the cooker on high heat. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 hours or until the beets are tender.
Let cool, then slip off the skins. Chop coarsely.
In a skillet large enough to hold all of the pasta, combine the oil, garlic and red pepper. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is fragrant, about one minute. Add the beets and salt to taste. Turn them in the oil until just heated through.
Bring a large pot of water to boiling. Add the pasta and salt to taste. Cook, stirring often, until the pasta is almost tender. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
Pour the pasta into the pan with the beets. Add some of the pasta cooking water and toss well over medium heat, stirring constantly until the pasta is evenly colored, about 2 minutes. Serve hot.