Recipe: Ziti with Calamari, Star Anise, Tomato, and Basil
As you’ve heard a million times, you either cook calamari fast or you do a slow simmer. Anything in between produces rubber. But it also depends on what you’re working with. Huge calamari will never respond well to flash-cooking. It’s best simmered or stuffed. This pasta recipe is in the summer mode, fast and fresh. Make it only when you can get your hands on small, tender, really fresh calamari, the kind I purchased from Phil Karlin, my Greenmarket fish guy who sets sail out of Riverhead, Long Island.
Now that I know you’re dealing with ultra fresh calamaretti, I’ll move on to the seasoning. Sometimes when I make quick summer dishes, my mind goes on automatic pilot, but I try not to let that happen. Even with effortless summer produce I try to keep myself swift by thinking creatively (now there’s a concept). I can easily get lazy with all those gorgeous tomatoes and fresh herbs around. Just chop them up and leave it at that. That’s not good for my well-being, or for any serious cook’s. I always try to work it.
To add complexity to this simple tomato and calamari pasta, I included star anise, a beautiful exotic spice used often in Chinese cooking. I love its aroma. When ground it’s quite strong, but used whole, in its amazing star shape, it adds a sweet, subtle anise flavor that comes through even in a fast-cooked dish like this. And when you pair it with basil, another anisey flavor, the mix is gorgeous. They blend and work off each other to create a new taste.
I love a quick dish that produces deep flavor. It’s not always easy to pull off, but when I hit on one it makes me very happy.
Ziti with Calamari, Star Anise, Tomato, and Basil
(Serves 4 as a main course)
1 pound ziti
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 fresh summer garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
1 whole fresh red chili, medium hot, minced
2 whole star anise
4 large round summer tomatoes, skinned and cut into small dice (drain lightly if very watery)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1½ pounds small, tender calamari, cut into rings
½ teaspoon sugar
A splash of vermouth
A handful of basil leaves, cut in half if big, left whole if small
Bring a pot of pasta cooking water to a boil, and add a generous amount of salt. Drop in the ziti.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, half of the minced chili, and one star anise. Sauté for about 30 seconds, to release their flavors. Add the tomatoes, turn the heat to high, and sear quickly, just until they give off a little juice, about 4 minutes. Season with salt. Transfer the tomatoes and all their skillet juices to a large warmed pasta cooking bowl.
Wipe out the skillet, and place it over high heat. Add the butter, a tablespoon of olive oil, the other star anise, and the remaining minced chili, and let sauté a few seconds. Add the calamari, seasoning it with the sugar (this will help it brown), and sauté very quickly, just until tender, about 1 or 2 minutes. Season with a little salt, and add to the tomatoes. Deglaze the skillet with a splash of vermouth, and pour that into the bowl as well.
When the ziti is al dente, drain it, and add it to the bowl. Add a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil and the basil, and give everything a good toss. Serve hot.