Toasted Pasta in Lemon Tomato Sauce
There are endless ways to prepare fideos, but since they all begin with toasting the pasta, to call it “fideos tostados” is redundant. Just call it fideos.
In Spain, packaged fideos comes in a range of shapes and thicknesses, straight or curved, all of them small and cut in short strands. In our family we’ve always preferred a long strand pasta from Italy, called fidelini (which is Italian for fideos). The longer strands lend themselves better to cooking in tomato sauce than short fine strands do, and tomato is what goes into the Sephardic dish. To make fidelini, several strands of raw vermicelli are twisted together into loose coils before drying. When cooked a la muestra – our way, the coils hold their shape, and the texture is fabulous. It’s an entirely different experience than eating straight vermicelli. Avoid nidi (“nests”) or fidelini made with egg; egg pasta is made from soft flour and will not do at all for this dish.
Whichever shape you use, fideos is to be cooked like rice, in only as much liquid as it can absorb without going soft; it is eaten al dente. The tomato in the cooking liquid is largely absorbed by the pasta, adding a subtle flavor to the nutty one it picks up in the toasting. Luscious simplicity.
Because this pasta is left to simmer without stirring it, browned bits – what my aunt calls sofrito (and Catalans call socarrat) – typically form at the bottom of the pan. This is not the sign of a bad cook! Au contraire – scraping a crunchy sofrito from the pan is one of the pleasures of eating fideos.
1 lb of coiled durum pasta, ideally fidelini
1 rounded soup spoon of tomato paste
2 very large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced, or a small can of whole, peeled tomatoes in their juice, cut up
Juice of half a lemon
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3-1/2 cups water
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Lay the fidelini in a single layer on a baking sheet pan and toast them until lightly browned. Turn them over with tongs (they’ll be hot!) and brown the other side.
Choose a covered skillet or Dutch oven that can hold the pasta in a shallow layer. Coat the bottom of the pan with oil and turn the heat to medium high. In this recipe you can be a little generous with the oil, but don’t go crazy – use a few tablespoons, but certainly no more than a fourth cup. Cook the tomato paste for a minute, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the salt, and the lemon juice. Lower the flame to medium, and cook undisturbed for about 7 minutes.
Add the water, stir it and bring to a boil. Add the fidelini, submerging them gently with a wooden spoon so that they lay flat in the pan. Reduce the flame and let simmer, partially covered, and without stirring, until all the liquid is absorbed.
Important note: Depending on the thickness of the pasta, you may need to adjust the amount of liquid you use. To get it just right the first time, begin with only 3 cups of liquid, adding more gradually and in small amounts as needed. Even the hardness of your water may affect how much you need. Once you’ve determined the right amount for the pasta you’re using, make note of it for the future, and from then on just add all the liquid at once.
When there’s no liquid left in the pan, turn off the flame and let the covered pan rest for a few minutes. Don’t toss the pasta. Serve fideos at the table, straight from the pan, and when it’s all gone, see who doesn’t fight you for the sofrito, too.