The Iron Triangle of Pasta Sauces

In project management circles, especially in academics and business, there is this conceptual tool known as the Iron Triangle. It identifies the constraints surrounding any project, what’s possible to accomplish given limited resources, contouring the limitations of a team in terms of time, expense and quality.

You have three sides of a triangle, each representing a constraint on a project: Quick, Cheap and Good. As a project manager, you may only have two, never all three. You can complete a project quickly and well, but such a project will require more and better resources. So it won’t be cheap. You can do a project quickly and on the cheap, but don’t expect it to be high quality. You can complete a project cheaply, with high quality, but it will take a long time.

Iron Triangle

As I said, basically every project you do must bend to the will of the Iron Triangle. This includes the project of making pasta sauces. If you want to make good sauce quickly, you have to buy high quality ingredients that need little modification. Such things don’t come cheap. You can make a quick pasta sauce with cheap ingredients, but it sure won’t be good. So if you want cheap and good, you’re going to have to spend the time.

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To date, I’ve published two pasta dish recipes (one with an olive oil-based sauce and the other with a tomato-based sauce). Both were of the quick, good (and expensive) variety. Today I’m going to cover the other side of the triangle: Cheap, good (but time consuming). (To be sure, you will never see me publish quick, cheap and terrible recipes.) Keeping with tradition, one will include an olive oil-based sauce and the other, a tomato-based sauce.

The Sauces

The olive oil-based sauce is essentially based on an emulsion of freshly made and concentrated chicken bone broth, white wine and extra virgin oil infused with fresh garlic, dried herbs, chili and lemon zest. The two together make a shiny, mouth-coating and gooey sauce that is both velvety and flavor intensive. The dish itself tastes like luxury, but costs about $4.00 per hefty serving in the form I present here, which includes jumbo, wild caught (but flash frozen) shrimp and tender, lightly wilted young kale.

The tomato-based recipe is a take on Napoletana sauce. My recipe is really simple: sweated diced Spanish onion, plentiful slivered garlic, dried herbs, dried chili pepper, crushed canned plum tomatoes. There are also two secrets ingredients, however: A little bit of red Thai bird chili to round out the heat and a little bit of Vietnamese anchovy fish sauce to dial up the umami. You actually can’t directly taste the the secret ingredients, but they sure help to elevate all of the other flavors. You finish it off by pureeing the sauce, which, care of the onions, turns into a silky, sultry experience, bursting with flavor. Total cost per serving is under $5.00 topped with a pan fried chicken thigh.

Start to finish, each dish should take about two hours for a cook with a basic skill set (and a moderate sense of urgency) to produce. To be sure, it’s worth reading my previous pasta articles, including my guide to marinara (for which many of the same concepts apply to Napoletana sauce) and my cheap tricks of delicious cooking, which goes into how to better select produce for your dishes, among other things.

Have a question? Ask me anything!

The Recipes

Linguine with lemon and shrimp

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Ingredients

For Bone Broth
150 g chicken bones and sinew including necks, backs and wings
500 mL filtered water
15 g (about 1 tbsp) dry vermouth

For Olive Oil Infusion
75 g (about 90 mL or 3 fl oz) California extra virgin olive oil
75 g (about 9 to 12 cloves) garlic, thinly slivered width-wise
4 g (about 1 rounded tbsp) crushed red pepper
1 g (about 0.5 tbsp) dried oregano
1 g (about 0.5 tbsp) dried basil

For Sauce
100 g (about 90 ml or 3 fl oz) dry vermouth
10 g (about 0.5 tsp) kosher salt
Grated zest without any white pith from about a half Lisbon lemon
1 g (about 0.5 tsp) coriander seeds, finely ground

For Pasta, Accompaniments and Toppings
250 g (about 9 oz) dried linguine pasta
30 g (about 1 tbsp) kosher salt
300 g (about 12 “extra jumbo”) flash frozen wild caught shrimp, deveined and deshelled
60 g (about 2 cups, loosely packed) young kale
2 sprigs fresh parsley with tender stems, finely chopped
15 g (about 10 mL or the juice of quarter  large fruit) lemon juice

Procedure

  1. Place frozen shrimp in a large zip lock bag and, without sealing the opening, submerge into a large bowl of cool water, being careful not to allow water into the bag. when the shrimp are fully below the water line, ensure that substantially all of the air has been removed from the bag and seal. Set aside and allow to thaw under water.
  2. Perform shimo furi, or “frost falling” procedure to reduce the amount of froth that forms when preparing the broth. Place the chicken bones and sinew in a strainer and pour boiling water over them until all of the exposed surface of the bones turns subtly white. Turn bones over and repeat. Rinse bones with tap water when complete.
  3. Place bones and sinew in a pressure cooker and pour the 500 mL of water and 15 g of dry vermouth over them. Water should just cover all of the bones. If bones are protruding from the surface of the water, maneuver them so that they are entirely covered. Set the pressure cooker for 15 pounds per square inch and cook for 90 minutes.
  4. If the procedures were done correctly you should have a cloudy, yellow-brown stock with little or no foam and oil floating atop. Skim broth to remove the floating foam or oil. Try to be as thorough as possible when skimming. When complete, first remove large bones and then strain through a fine mesh steel conical strainer, such as a chinois, to remove any remaining solids. (This procedure can be completed more easily on frozen broth; if you choose to freeze, store in an airtight container for no longer than six months. When ready to use, simply melt the broth and proceed with the next step.)
  5. Measure out 200 mL of broth and set the rest aside for later use. Again, the broth may be frozen and stored in an airtight container for no longer than six months. Pour the 200 mL of broth into a small saucepan and place over low heat. Reduce at a slow simmer until volume is diminished by half and set aside.
  6. Preheat oven to 150 °C (302 °F). Combine the slivered garlic and olive oil in a small, oven safe ramekin and ensure the garlic is entirely submerged in the oil. If required to fully submerge garlic, add just enough additional oil. When the oven is at temperature, add the ramekin to the oven. When the garlic is at a steady fry in the oil, about 10 minutes, give the mixture a careful but thorough stir. Add crushed red pepper and dried oregano and basil, carefully stirring to fully integrate. Continue to fry in the oven until the oil has tinged red-brown, about 10 additional minutes. Separate the solids from the oil with a fine mesh strainer such as a chinois and set each aside separately.
  7. In a large, heavy saute pan, heat the infused oil over medium heat to 225 °C (437 °F). Remove shrimp from zip lock bag and saute on all sides until deep pink and golden brown at the edges. Turn frequently. As the shrimp reach full color and curl up, immediately remove them from the pan into a clean bowl. Most of the shrimp should be done within three to five minutes with frequent turning.
  8. When all the shrimp have been cooked, keep the oil in the pan but set aside. In a separate large pot, add 30 g kosher salt to three quarts of tap water and bring to a rapid boil over high heat. When boil is achieved, add pasta. The rapid boil should momentarily reduce to a simmer and then again build up. Reduce heat to medium when boil reaches a lively simmer. Gently stir about every minute. Cook for two minutes less than the duration indicated on the pasta package for al dente pasta. When cooked for the intended duration, drain over a large metal strainer or colander and rinse with cool running tap water. When the pasta is sufficiently cool, ensure that all residual starch has been removed from the pasta by gently tossing the pasta with your hands under the running tap water. When complete, ensure all water has been thoroughly drained from the strainer and set aside.
  9. Place the saute pan that still contains the infused oil on medium heat. Add the reduced chicken stock, dry vermouth, coriander, lemon zest and salt. With a flat whisk or fork, emulsify the mixture until it fully integrates, is still shiny but no longer appears oily.
  10. When sauce just starts to simmer, add reserved garlic, herb, chili infusion mixture, along with the cooked pasta. Cook on high heat, coating the pasta with the sauce. After one minute, add shrimp and kale. Continue to cook, tossing to coat until kale begins to wilt, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and add lemon juice, tossing pasta to integrate. Add additional kosher salt to taste. The dish should be mildly salted, with just enough salt to bring out the savory elements in the dish, but not so much that the nuances begin to mute.
  11. Portion equally between four pasta bowls. Top with parsley and serve immediately.

Tagliatelle Napoletana with Pan Fried Garlic Chicken

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Ingredients

For Sauce
50 g (about 60 mL or 2 oz) California extra virgin olive oil
4 medium red Thai bird chili peppers, sliced into wide rings
250 g (about 1 small) Spanish onion, diced
50 g (about 6 to 8 cloves) garlic, thinly slivered width-wise
2 g (about 0.5 tbsp) crushed red pepper
2 g (about 1 tbsp) dried oregano
2 g (about 1 tbsp) dried basil
800 g (28 oz) can of diced plum tomatoes
20 g (about 1 tbsp) Vietnamese anchovy fish sauce
15 g (about 0.5 tbsp kosher salt)

For Chicken Brine
400 g (about 4 medium) chicken thighs, deboned and skin removed
500 mL filtered water
30 g (about 1 tbsp kosher salt)
5 g (about 1 tsp) white granulated sugar

For Dredge and Fry
200 g (about 1.25 cups) fine potato starch, sifted through a fine mesh strainer
90 g (about 0.5 cups) garlic powder, sifted through a fine mesh strainer (not to be confused with the more coarse granulated garlic)
20 g (about 3 tbsp) cayenne pepper, finely ground into powder and sifted through a fine mesh strainer
3 g (about 0.25 tsp) kosher salt
0.5 g (about 0.5 tsp) dried oregano
0.5 g (about 0.5 tsp) dried basil
150 g (about 180 mL or 6 fl oz) California extra virgin olive oil

For Pasta and Toppings
250 g (about 9 oz) dried Tagliatelle pasta
30 g (about 1 tbsp) kosher salt
100 g (about 90 ml or 3 fl oz) dry vermouth
10 medium leaves fresh basil
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to taste

Procedure

  1. For the brine, in a large bowl, combine 500 mL of water, along with the salt and sugar, stirring until the liquid is entirely clear. Add the chicken to the brine and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, but no greater than one hour. Alternatively, you can brine in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least two hours but no greater than eight hours. In the refrigerator, the salt will take longer to penetrate the meat. Given the extended length of time, however, the meat will tenderize more than at room temperature, but will lose some degree of flavor concentration to the brine. Decide which is best for your taste and the meat you have based on its tenderness level when raw. I recommend that you experiment to decide what you like best and what is best for the meat you have access to. In general, I prefer the quicker, room temperature brining. When brining is complete, remove meat and discard brine. Thoroughly pat dry with a paper towel. If brined in the refrigerator, rest at room temperature to warm to at least 15 °C (59 °F) before cooking.
  2. In a large, stainless steel stock pot, heat 50 g of olive oil to approximately 180 °C (356 °F) over low flame. Add the bird chilis and simmer until they just begin to darken, about three minutes. Add the onions and toss in the oil to coat, increasing flame to medium. Cook onions until translucent, about eight minutes, stirring intermittently to ensure even cooking. The onions should not brown at all, but just begin to lose their opacity. If onions begin to brown, reduce heat. Add dried red chili, oregano and basil, folding to integrate. Cook until just aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add garlic, stirring to integrate.
  3. Add tomatoes along with all juices. Gently, but quickly, fold the tomatoes and juices with the olive oil and other aromatics, integrating them as best you can. You know you’re done when there is not much oil pooling atop the tomatoes. Bring the sauce to a mild simmer and add the fish sauce, stirring to integrate. Continue to simmer for about 30 minutes, uncovered. Stirring intermittently, ensure the pace of the simmer is maintained at mild, modifying flame accordingly.
  4. Remove from heat. Add the 15 g of kosher salt, stirring to integrate. With a hand immersion blender, or in a separate stand blender, thoroughly puree the sauce until smooth and even. Taste the sauce to ensure it is appropriately salted. It should be just salty enough to bring out the subtleties of the tomatoes and herbs, but subdue the sweetness of the onions. The sweet flavor of the herbs helps balance the acid edge of the tomatoes. If there is insufficient sweetness such that the two are not in harmony, add a couple pinches each of additional dried oregano and basil, stirring to integrate. Keep covered and set aside. The herbs will extract in the warm sauce without additional heat.
  5. Preheat the oven to 200 °C (392 °F) and place a cast iron or carbon steel frying pan to heat.
  6. While oil is heating, in a bowl, mix the potato starch, garlic powder, cayenne, dried herbs and 3 g of salt together thoroughly and pour onto a quarter baking sheet and evenly spread. Run the chicken through the dredge and evenly coat the pieces on all sides and in any folds or crevasses. Place on a separate baking sheet, allowing to rest for five minutes or until the starch has soaked through. Lightly dust the chicken with the dredge again and, again, allow to rest.
  7. When the pan is preheated, carefully place on the stove over medium heat and pour the 150 g of olive oil into it. Heat over medium flame to until oil reaches 185 °C (365 °F). Fry the chicken thighs on each side, until golden brown, about two to three minutes per side. When both sides are golden brown, flip again and continue to fry on each side until medium brown and the internal temperature of the chicken at the thickest portion registers 65 °C (149 °F). Place chicken on drying rack and allow to cool slightly as you continue onto other tasks.
  8. In a separate large pot, add 30 g kosher salt to three quarts of tap water and bring to a rapid boil over high heat. When boil is achieved, add pasta. The rapid boil should momentarily reduce to a simmer and then again build up. Reduce heat to medium when boil reaches a lively simmer. Gently stir about every minute. Cook for two minutes less than the duration indicated on the pasta package for al dente pasta. When cooked for the intended duration, drain over a large metal strainer or colander and rinse with cool running tap water. When the pasta is sufficiently cool, ensure that all residual starch has been removed from the pasta by gently tossing the pasta with your hands under the running tap water. When complete, ensure all water has been thoroughly drained from the strainer and set aside.
  9. In a large, heavy and clean carbon steel pan, over medium heat, heat the sauce and 100 g of dry vermouth, stirring to integrate. When the sauce begins to lightly simmer, add the pasta. Cook on high heat, carefully coating the pasta with the sauce. Once pasta is coated, continue to cook and occasionally lightly toss the pasta until it is fully cooked through, about one minute. Remove from heat and taste. The dish should be mildly salted, with just enough salt to bring out the savory elements in the dish, but not so much that the nuances begin to mute. Additional salt will be added with the addition of cheese as a topping.
  10. Portion out pasta between four bowls. Roughly chop the basil and apportion atop each bowl. Add some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for aesthetics, allowing individuals to add more to taste. Serve immediately.

Have a question? Ask me anything!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Bipasha says:

    Haha Sanjay, I love that super systematic approach to cooking 😉
    And your pasta sauce recipes sound great, too!

    1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the article. My systematic approach is actually the same used in professional kitchens. Replicability and consistency is key!

  2. These recipes are just divine.

    1. Thank you! If you happen to try them, let me know how they turn out!

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