Recipe: Orecchiette with Crab, Chilli & Garlic
Orecchiette is an underused pasta named ‘little ears’ in Italian. It scoops up sauce through its rough, irregular surface leaving each bite layered in sweet, spicy sauce. I like making this recipe midweek when I do not have a lot of time on my hands and I want something fast. You can also deliberately make too much pasta and save some to eat cold in a salad. You can see some substitutes for crab below if you prefer another type of seafood or no seafood at all.
Ingredients: Orecchiette with Crab, Chilli & Garlic
Tools: Orecchiette with Crab, Chilli & Garlic
Method: Orecchiette with Crab, Chilli & Garlic
Step One: Prep Your Ingredients
Remove the skin from your garlic bulb and finely slice the garlic. Pick your parsley and finely chop the parsley. You can also use the stems and finely slice these too but use this sparingly. You should focus on using the parsley leaves. Roll your lemon on the chopping board to help release the juice and then zest the lemon. You could also cut and juice the lemon at this stage into a ramekin or other container of your choice.
Your crab meat may come in a can or other package. I assume most people are not cooking live crabs or whole crab. Drain your crab meat and run the meat through your fingers to make sure there is no shell left behind (this happens occasionally).
Set these ingredients aside.
Step Two: Cooking Ingredients & Seasoning Boiled Water
Take your large saucepan, fill it with water and apply a generous amount of sea salt. Taste the water and add salt until the water tastes like seawater. Add the orecchiette when the water is boiling.
Place your saute pan on medium heat, wait 2 minutes for the pan to heat up and then add a generous amount of olive oil to the saute pan. Allow to heat for a minute or two. Add your garlic slices and chilli flakes. Reduce the heat to low and allow the garlic and chilli to mingle in the oil. You want to infuse the oil which means using a low and slow heat. This should take about five minutes. You do not want burnt garlic or burnt chilli flakes but you will end up with golden brown garlic slices.
Step Three: Add The Crab & Add Seasoned Water
You should scatter your crab into the saute pan, raise the temperature to a medium-low heat and wait for the crab to come to heat. Your crab is likely already cooked. You want to bring the crab up to heat letting the flavoured oil coat the crab meat. Leave the crab meat to warm up for about five minutes.
Collect a few tablespoons of the pasta water with your ramekin or ladle to add to the saute pan and stir the crab and flavoured oil (see notes). Reduce the pasta water by half. You should see a silky texture and colour emerge in the saute pan and allow the crab and flavoured oil to heat for 2 - 3 minutes.
Remove the saucepan from the heat, add your lemon zest and stir through. Re-introduce the pan to the heat.
Step Four: Introduce the Orecchiette and the Crab
Remove your orecchiette (but retain some water in your ramekin just in case). Add the orecchiette to the crab, flavoured olive oil and lemon zest. Gently stir the orecchiette through the crab and flavoured oil until you get a nice coating.
You gently add a tablespoon of pasta water at a time until you get the silky saucy texture you prefer. Add your chopped parsley and ground black pepper to your taste.
Step Five: Serve
I like to serve orecchiette in a bowl with a little extra virgin olive oil and a touch of Maldon sea salt. Serve hot.
Notes and Rationale: Orecchiette with Crab, Chilli & Garlic
Any tips about the frying or saute pan?
Yes, size matters. You will tip the orecchiette into the flavoured oil. This means you need a pan large enough to turn all the orecchiette, crab and flavoured oil. This requires space and patience.
You could add the crab and oil to the (drained) orecchiette if you do not have a pan large enough. You should salve a ramekin or ladle full of the pasta water (for reasons described below).
What if I do not like crab?
This is a solid base recipe for most delicate kinds of pasta.
Canned or jarred tuna is wonderfully meaty substitutes to crab. You would cook the dish exactly the same. You could also add a scattering of capers; a loyal accompaniment to tuna in pasta.
A generous portion of anchovies brings a subtle meaty flavour while disappearing into flavoured olive oil with all that stirring.
You could also replace crab with clams or mussels if you lean closer to a vongole-style dish.
You may want alternatives to fish or seafood altogether. I recommend pairing orecchiette with a vegetable or even plain. Enjoy a lovely flavoured orecchiette steeped in jammy garlic slivers, warming chilli flakes and bright lemon minus the crab. This is vegetarian, it is vegan and a soul-warming dish that can be eaten hot or cold like a pasta salad. You may want to refresh the dish with a light dressing of extra virgin olive oil and a little lemon juice with a stir before serving if you eat it cold.
Alternatively, use green vegetables like asparagus tips, pea or broad beans with grated pecorino or parmesan as classic options with orecchiette. I love grated broccoli florets in a pool of dolcelatte with a thin wedge of dolcelatte on top that melts into the pasta.
I do not have orecchiette, what else can I use?
Honestly, just about anything for this pasta. I like orecchiette because these carby plaster of paris-looking fragments cling onto sauce like a screaming k-pop fan having an existential crisis clutched to the object of their affection. Got the picture? You could substitute orecchiette with conchiglie (aka pasta shells), rigatoni or, yes, penne or fusilli. This addresses those ‘stabby’ pasta types that need not require a knife, but a spoon would aid greedy snuffling.
You may prefer the long slender ribbons of pasta that demand fork twirling. You should reach out for linguine, trenette or taglierini. You could, of course, use spaghetti or your long pasta of choice.
Why do you not recommend cheese in this recipe?
Pasta usually invites cheese in some form. Parmesan, Gran Padano, pecorino, taleggio, the list goes on almost endlessly. Seafood and cheese, however, are not comfortable bedfellows so I do not recommend using cheese for this pasta.
Crab is a subtle, sweet protein that wants to be challenged with the garlic, chilli and lemon aromatics to bring out its best. The cheese will likely just coat your mouth and overwhelm the subtle delicate crab flavour.
I want a more punchy deep crab or seafood flavour, how?
I hear you and respect the boldness. An easy solution will be to use a tablespoon of brown crab meat to add additional richness to the dish. You should add this before incorporating the white crab meat. This allows the brown crab meat to melt into the flavoured oil. I recommend starting light with the brown meat and then add more as you want. As usual, you can always add but you cannot take away.
An even more luxurious ingredient could be uni or sea urchin. This brings a certain amount of umami as well. You want to carefully balance the use of uni. You will want to decide whether you are making a uni orecchiette with crab meat or crab meat with a subtle uni boost.
Why should I use olive oil and not EVOO?
There are levels to olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is, broadly, more expensive, peppery and often used as a finishing oil used just before serving. Too often people waste extra virgin olive oil in cooking especially at high temperatures. I speak as a recovering EVOO waster.
There are articles that will teach you about different types of olive oils. A virgin olive oil or olive oil is perfectly suitable for cooking especially saute cooking like this recipe.
You can use extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over the dish with some sea salt should you wish (this is what I do!)
Why do you recommend a ‘generous amount of olive oil’ to the saute pan?
Your olive oil will be transformed into a flavoured liquid gold that bathes your orecchiette and crab. This is the equivalent to a salad dressing bringing life to dull leaves. This recipe features very few ingredients. The liberal use of olive oil brings everything together and plays a role in its own right.
People are health conscious about using too much oil – and rightly so. Use a smaller amount of olive oil in the beginning and top it up as needed if you want to manage your oil consumption. I will gamble that you will end up using the same amount as recommended.
Why do you not add oil to your water?
I am so glad you asked. The theory is that oil helps prevent the pasta from sticking together. It turns out this is blue ribbon nonsense anyway.
Save your oil, save it for the pasta, save it for the crab. You actually want a pasta pot so large and filled with water that you might seriously consider taking it outside and slipping in you with a drink and sunglasses. Take your bath-sized pot, fill it with water, salt it with kosher or sea salt until it tastes like the ocean and bring it to a boil. And I mean bring it to the boil.
The combination of vicious boiling and heavy salting both seasons the pasta and agitates it to help prevent sticking. Give the pasta a stir for good measure every few minutes or so as needed.
If you really want to add oil, do this once the pasta is drained as it would soak up the oil flavour at this point.
Why do you add the pasta water to the crab and flavoured oil mixture?
The secret trick of any Italian nonna worth her salt for years. Pasta is mostly made of flour and/or semolina. This starching goodness bleeds into your boiling (and I said boiling) pasta water. You add a few tablespoons to your pasta sauces to add richness. It is almost like a roux or thickener that brings the sauce together. It is also seasoned generously with salt so there is a slight boost of seasoning to your sauce. You can do this with most pasta sauces.
You will often see people retain a cup of pasta water, which is why I recommend the ladle or ramekin in the tools section above.
Why do you roll the lemon on the chopping board?
This is a trick I learned from some chef on TV. Citrus fruit can be tricky little things to economically juice. Rolling limes, lemons, oranges (you get the picture) helps burst the juice into the fruit resulting in a softer, more juicy citrus juice.
Be careful when you cut into rolled citrus as, often, the juice can burst out or leak on a board when you slice into it. You may want to cut fruit onto a plate or over your intended target to avoid unintended wastage.
Why do you recommend the tools you use?
Cook’s knife / Global knives: I like the weight of a cook’s knife and it is versatile enough to do fine dicing, medium dicing as well as the rest of the chopping techniques in this recipe. I like the Global knives because they are excellent, sharp and you do not need to worry about the handle breaking from the blade after many years. They do not slip in the hand even when wet.
Wooden chopping board: wooden chopping boards are durable and they are better on your knife’s longevity. Never buy a glass chopping board. They look nice but they will dull your knife very easily. The alternative would be to buy plastic but there are many articles about wood vs plastic, which is more sanitary etc. Wooden chopping boards require washing by hand and drying thoroughly. Plastic boards can go in the dishwasher in an appropriate setting. This will be a major benefit for some people due to the cleaning convenience.
I personally buy wooden boards. You do not need to go buy expensive boards. I have a GIANT wooden board about 5 feet wide and just under two foot tall and about 3 inches thick. It is made from recycled wood bought in a hardware store. The store’s carpenter made and treated it for me. It is brilliant as you can cook a whole meal on the same board without washing, drying or flipping over between prepping items.