Elegant cooking doesn’t need to mean complicated. Here’s a pasta dish that you can whip up in the time it takes for the water to come to a boil and the pasta to cook—yet it is fancy enough for the most important or better yet, intimate of dinners: thin spaghetti dressed with a creamy shallot wine reduction, enriched with cream and laced with salmon roe. The flavors are incredible and the look impressive. What’s not to like? It’s a perfect first course for a cenone di san Silvestro, the traditional meatless New Year’s Eve dinner, or for an intimate Valentine’s Day dinner for two. But it’s very nice eaten al fresco in the late Spring or Summer or, really, any time of year.
The original version of this dish is made with ‘real’ caviar, the kind from sturgeon that cost a small fortune. If you have deep pockets, it’s fabulous. But this version, made with salmon roe, is just as delicious and costs only a fraction of the price, although it’s still not exactly cheap, which makes it a good choice for a dinner for two. If you want to dress this dish up even more, use a thin egg pasta like tagliolini. It is also fine with fettuccine, or other long dry pasta like spaghetti or linguine.
Cook the pasta in abundant, well salted water until al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, melt a good dollop of butter (or a mixture of oil and butter) in a skillet. Sauté the shallot over very gentle heat for a minute or two, then add a splash of white wine. Raise the heat and let the wine reduce until it become syrupy. Add the cream and reduce again, until you have a nice, ‘saucy’ consistency. Turn off the heat and add half the salmon roe, mixing it well with the cream. If you like crush a few of the roe to add color and taste to the sauce. Taste and adjust for seasoning; the sauce should be very flavorful.
When the pasta is done, transfer it to the skillet. Turn on the heat to medium-high and mix the pasta with the sauce until all the strands of pasta are well coated with the sauce. If you find the sauce it a bit too thick, add more cream. If too thin, just let the pasta cook a bit longer. The pasta should not be swimming in the sauce, but it should slither around easily in the skillet.
Serve in pasta bowls and top each portion with the remaining salmon roe.
NOTES: If you don’t cook with alcohol, use a few drops of lemon juice instead of the white wine; you need a little acidity to balance out the dish. If you want a fancier dish, use some champagne instead of wine—and finish off the rest of the bottle, of course, as you dine. For a Russian touch, use vodka (I’ve seen this version called tagliolini alla russa). You can add a bit of chopped parsley to the shallot soffritto, although I think it rather mars the look of the dish. And if you don’t have shallot on hand, very finely minced onion will do as well. (Either way, it’s important to mince very finely, so the shallot or onion melts into the sauce completely. You want them to lend a back-taste that’s hardly noticeable.) Oh, and please, no grated cheese…