OK - so the holidays are over. Isn't January just a drag? Sometimes, when the post-holidays blues set in, the only answer is some serious comfort food. So, I flipped through the Top Chef Cookbook, looking for some comfort food - with a twist. And I found it! Ilan's Fideos with Clams and Safron! In other words, yummy noodles with a savory cream sauce, clams, broccoli, and cauliflower! People might at first shrug or seriously question a dish entitled "Fideos" - what does that mean? Fideo is really nothing more than the Spanish word for a noodle. Traditionally, fideos are capellini style noodles. Fideos can typically be found in Barcelona, Spain, often served with seafood, as Ilan did, and even served on occasion with squid ink sauce. I actually love squid ink sauce, but was glad that was not the version Ilan chose, for two very good reasons. First, I really didn't want to figure out how I was going to "milk" uncleaned squid for ink for the sauce - sounded like too much of a messy proposition to me! Second, as much as I love squid ink sauce (both the Spanish and Italians frequently use it), I feel it should be a solitary guilty pleasure - the ink completely gets entrapped in the crevices between your teeth - and it's really not pretty. But I digress! On to the cooking...
Toasting the Fideos: The recipe calls for fideos or capellini pasta. Since they are essentially the same thing, and capellini is easy to find. I broke the capellini into 3-inch pieces, laid them out on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven to toast. OK, I'll admit - I think I might have toasted them for a minute or two too long - about half of them were perfectly golden - but the other half were slightly over-toasted. Heck - I used them anyway.
The Saffron Cream Sauce: The cream sauce was a breeze. All I needed was to mix the cream with the saffron threads (an aromatic golden orange colored spice derived from crocus stigmas with a subtle and slightly woody flavor). Then I added the salt, broccoli and cauliflower together in a saucepan. Easy easy easy.
Creating Mild and Tender Garlic Cloves: Garlic can be tricky. The problem is that people can just be too impatient with it. Garlic can impart a bitter sharp taste if cooked too quickly - or essentially burned. But garlic can be mild, savory and nutty if cooked very slowly. The recipe calls for cooking the 10 garlic cloves in oil over low heat. This cannot be rushed. In fact, the recipe said it would take about 15 minutes to get them soft enough to be broken up by the back of a wooden spoon, but in fact I found it took closer to 25 minutes to get the cloves that soft.
I also found that once I could see that they were soft enough, I found it easier to get all the cloves sufficiently "smooshed" b y using the back of a fork.
Incorporating the Fideos with the Clams: Once the garlic has been cooked, softened and smashed, you need to cook the garlic with the fideos and the clams. I washed the clams by rinsing them several times in cold water and then rubbing each of the clams with a fresh dish towel to make sure there was no grit left.
Here is where I wish the recipe had more than just called for a large sauce pan, but an 8-quart stock pot. There is a full pound of capellini in this recipe and it was close to impossible to fit them all in the large sauce pan. (Before cooking, the fideos pasta is brittle so it couldn't all fit in a 4-quart sauce pan along with the clams and get the cover on.) So, what I did was pour in the white wine (a nice crisp Spanish wine, which was to be the cooking liquid) and layer in the noodles and the clams until all the clams were in and as many of the noodles as could fit were in. Then as the noodles started to cook down and provide more space in the sauce pan, I kept shoving in more noodles until they all fit in the sauce pan. The fideos were supposed to have been fully cooked and the clams were to have opened up after 4 minutes. This was just not enough time, and only 1/2 cup of white wine was not enough liquid to cook the fideos (or to generate enough steam to get the clams open). So I added about another cup of water to get those noodles cooked and get the clams to open up -this took about another 4 minutes.
Mixing it All Together: This recipe is total smooth sailing from here. Just stir in the saffron cream, broccoli and cauliflower mixture, and then the dish is ready to plate.
Plating the Dish: Now all that was necessary was putting portions of the fideos and clams on oven safe plates and put them under the broiler for a final browning.
My Suggestions To Make This Fabulous Dish Even Better: This dish was super-yummy. And even my slight over-toasting of the fideos lent a nice nutty quality to the dish that worked well with the saffron cream sauce and the clams. It was really satisfying, and let's face it: Who doesn't love the decadence of cream sauce? Other than the adjustments I mentioned above to make the dish more manageable to execute, I wouldn't make any changes. One thing I'd consider doing, however, if I made this dish again, is add ten to twenty more clams (already shelled) to add a little more mineral "clamminess" to the dish, and to add more protein.
Final Word On this Dish: The next time you are craving pasta, and want to do something easy, but with a little more pizzazz than penne with marinara or even linguini with clam sauce, consider making Ilan's Fideos! I'm definitely making this one again - if for no one else - just for me!