Some recipes are more than mere instructions regarding ingredients, quantities and process.
Some recipes contain magic.
I never enjoyed a great relationship with my dad but his love of cooking and music are two things indelibly tattooed upon my soul for which I remain eternally grateful.
When you lose a parent, especially one with whom you did not enjoy great communication, the longing for that parent-child communication doesn’t go away. In fact, that longing for communication can intensify to the point where we dream of the deceased loved one and wish to seek them out by whatever resolution or prerequisite devotion necessary even if only for one more chance to scrap and make up.
Wishfulness aside, the smell of this sauce alone is enough to send my mother teleporting through pasta dimensions uttering, ‘’I keep expecting your father to walk through the door.’’
According to my late father, his signature dish: Pasta (Alla Chitarra) is a bastardized version of Pasta Alla Ambasciadore.
A trick he picked up circa 1966 in Rome, Italy while romancing my then sixteen year old mother who was on a parallel path -fleeing Romania and Ceausescu’s communist regime in one fell swoop.
His obvious good looks aside, my dad was a smoothy, a joker, a laugher, a singer, a storyteller, and an excellent cook.
That I attempted and failed to find Pasta Alla Ambasciadore on the books as far as google-ability is probably due to the fact that my dad was as gifted a bullshitter as he was a cook.
So I wasn’t surprised to find Pasta Alla Ambasciadore came up vaguely associated to various links containing little if any mention of a recipe asoociated to the name.
Prodding further I found the only google-able mentions of Pasta Alla Chitarra discuss the process of making angel hair pasta also known as capellini from scratch. Angel hair is a lovely cut of pasta (perhaps the loveliest of all especially when dressed up with a fresh tomato, basil garlic sauce) but possibly the worst choice for a cream type sauce as the noodles are prone to become glued together. Not friendly for leftovers. Don't get me wrong, I love and appreciate the virtues of fresh pasta.
Which reminds me of a little annecdote about how my dad used to make his own fresh pasta from scratch.
''I made it from scratch!' He'd say.
''Not the pasta.'' My mother would counter.
''Sure I did. First I scratched myself and then I put the noodles in water.''
Despite feeling a little miffed that that my dad's signature secret sour cream super-carbonara sauce recipe carries the name of a cut of pasta that is probably the least suitable cut for it to be enjoyed with, I feel I must let Pasta Alla Chitarra stand as the name of the dish. My dad was a bit of a clown and enjoyed an enigmatic facet to his personality which is extremely difficult to pin down without his physical presence here in the room yet somehow this near contradiction in terms pins him down perfectly. Of course, I hope you enjoy the dish on whatever cut of pasta you choose. Especially Alla Chitarra. Just expect cold sour cream and ham kugel for breakfast if you refrigerate the leftovers.
The key to this sublimely tricked out version of pasta in sour cream sauce is two pounds of diced, caramelized ham, heavily peppered and butter-sauteed to the point of no return. Sound interesting?
You will need:
-500g package of good quality semolina spaghetti or linguini.
(Again fresh pasta is not ideal for cream sauces but go ahead and do what you want with what you got. Life is an adventure!)
-2lbs ham. (I often buy the ends off of the deli counter person at my corner grocer – they’re perfect for this kind of recipe and you’ll often get them for a fraction of the price. If there aren’t any ends that are appetizing enough I spring for ten slices approximately 4 millimeters thick per slice as it will save you time on the dice.)
-500 ml container of full fat 14% sour cream.
-1 cup of 10% cream for coffee or 15% table cream (you can always go for 35% heavy cream especially if you are trying to shorten the lives of your relatives but I feel 10% is enough to achieve the desired consistency.)
1 cup milk (cow milk - no substitute )
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 teaspoon chili flakes
2 tablespoon dry oregano or dried herbes de Provence.
2 cups 2% milk
1 cup fresh grated parmesan
2 fresh shallots
-Chop the shallots.
-Slice and dice the ham so your cubes are no bigger than approximately 4 millimeter squares.
-Preheat a large nonstick frying pan to high heat.
-Prepare the salted water for your pasta.
-Add the cubed ham to the preheated pan with nothing but the pepper. The ham will begin to sizzle and sweat but should not stick. Disperse the cracked black pepper evenly throughout the ham, add the butter and chopped shallots and reduce the heat to medium high stirring the butter through the resulting sautee every two minutes for 15 minutes.
This is where much of the magic happens. The ensuing aroma of buttery, peppered ham registering somewhere on the barbapapa end of the umami-caramel-spectrum is your cue to add the chili flakes.
Work the chili flakes through and sautee another ten minutes until the ham dice is thoroughly caramelized, peppery and borderline obscene.
Reduce heat to Low.
Bring your water to a boil.
Add your package of either spaghetti or linguini to the boiling water.
Most pasta takes 7-10 minutes depending on the brand.
Always cook the pasta al dente because it will continue cooking in the sauce.
Take care to stir your pasta every 30 seconds for the first two minutes.
Reduce the boiling water to medium once you’ve achieved a rolling boil.
With the pasta safely out of the danger of sticking to the pot zone, add the sour cream to the ham sautee.
Increase your heat to Low-Medium.
-Add the oregano or herbes de Provence to the sour cream and work the ham through the sour cream until the sour cream begins to break down and melt.
As the sour cream softens to liquid, slowly add the 10% cream, working it through carefully with a baker’s or whatever spatula. Once the cream and sour cream are bubbling happily, reduce the heat back to low.
-Add the parmesan and work it through the ham-herbs-cream concoction.
Once the pasta is cooked reduce your sauce pan to minimum.
-Strain your pasta.
-Add one teaspoon butter to the pasta. You can do this in the colander.
-Add the buttered pasta to the sauce carefully so as to avoid spills.
-Fold the cream and ham through the pasta evenly working your way around counter clockwise as my dad was a lefty and after all, this is his magic dish.
Zero your elements, kick back with a hunk of fresh country bread, some good olives and a glass of Sicilian red wine. Count your children. Count your grandchildren. Count your blessings. Count the pieces of candied, peppery ham in each creamy spool as they pass through your lips.
Chances are you’ll have people asking for seconds and third helpings but in case you have any leftovers and you’re an incorrigible bachelor, this dish makes for a delicious cold breakfast.
Should the kids want it again for lunch the next day, here’s a quick hack to bring the sauce back to life like a microwave messiah.
One minute in the microwave oven in a microwave safe bowl to get the chill off, (microwave strengths vary)
Add 1/4 cup of 2% (or whatever % you got) milk - this will allow the noodles to release from one another.
Add 1 tablespoon grated parmesan stirring it through carefully with a baker’s spatula adding another splash or two of milk if necessary for the noodles to separate.
Microwave for another minute or until desired heat and sauce texture is achieved (adjusting with milk to thin the sauce and parmesan to thicken according to taste.)
The noodles should be moving around freely in the cream sauce but not swimming.
You don’t want to overmilk the leftovers but in case you do slip up you can always smooth things out again by adding a teaspoon of butter.
Keep it smooth. Be diplomatic about it.
Remember you aren’t just cooking up some bastardized version of Pasta Alla Ambasciadore. –You’re conjuring dad.