Top This Easy Homemade Pasta With Crab and Feel Fancy AF
Chef Jamie Bissonnette of Toro showed us how to form rustic pici noodles from scratch without a pasta machine.
Photography by Farideh Sadeghin
A spicy, Hong Kong-inspired seafood sauce might not be the most obvious topping for nonna-style noodles from Tuscany. But then again, we're not all as inventive as Jamie Bissonnette, whose globally-inspired dishes—like beef stroganoff spiked with sambal and Thai basil, or chow fun with a hit of Calabrian chili—at his Boston restaurant Little Donkey break the mold of the classic neighborhood restaurant.
The focus is on noodles when Bissonnette and chef and business partner Ken Oringer stop by the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen. Though most of the pair's restaurants are in Boston, the New York outpost of their tapas bar Toro makes the perfect excuse for them to visit us in Brooklyn.
After Oringer shows us how to make an eclectic, Spanish-inspired fideos, Bissonnette leads us through a rustic pasta called pici. With an appearance like extra-fat spaghetti, pici are hand-pulled noodles that Bissonnette likens to Japanese udon in texture. Topped with king crab and a spicy XO sauce, this pici dish is refined enough to impress anyone you might have over for dinner, but still fun enough to make without taking yourself too seriously.
The most labor-intensive part of this recipe is the XO sauce. To that end, Bissonnette has arrived with the sauce fully prepped, so we can focus on the noodles. At home, you can use a premade XO sauce, like the jarred version by Lee Kum Kee that's jam-packed with dried shrimp, scallops, garlic, and chili.
The process of making pici is fun and active. The dough is a simple mix of water, salt, and flour that's brought together by a little kneading, and it’s a recipe that Bissonnette says you can whip up quickly, or make, form, and freeze for later. Basically, it can be impressive, but also comfortable and easy—exactly what we want from a pasta.
“I always think I’ll have this [dough] when I have a date, so I can be like, ‘You wanna have some fresh pasta?’” Bissonnette says with a laugh. “But really it’s just me and my buddy baked at 2am and I’m like, ‘Wanna make mac and cheese?’”
Bissonnette mixes together equal parts semolina and 00 flour, water, and salt. He kneads it for ten minutes (no less, he urges). Once the dough is formed and kneaded, it can sit in the fridge for a day. But while making the dough ahead of time is okay, according to Bissonnette, you’ll want to wait until just before you’re ready to eat to actually make the pici. With their large amount of surface area, letting the noodles sit for long would make them dry and unappealing.
Since we're making the noodles immediately, Bissonnette cuts the ball of dough into several chunks, then rolls each piece into a long log. “A lot of those old grandma ones, they’ll just do them as long as their wingspan,” he says.
He lifts the dough on one end, while holding the other against the cutting board with the other. With a quick stretching motion, he wiggles and spins the noodle. “Make sure you don’t flour your workbench. You want a little friction,” he says.
When the noodle is long and elastic, he drops the finished noodles into a mixture of semolina and rice flour. According to Bissonnette, that mixture doesn’t get gummy like regular flour might.
Though Bissonnette is showing us how to make pici, the dough—which he describes as “pretty dope”—can have many other uses, like cavatelli, malloreddus, Sardinian couscous, gnochetti, and pastina. If you don't want to eat them immediately, he says, coat them in flour, freeze until set, and then drop them into a freezer bag. “You can freeze them and then cook right from frozen. Since it’s fresh, it’ll absorb a lot regardless if it has the grooves or not,” says Bissonnette. (Again, pici is an exception: make them right before serving!)
Bissonnette brings salted water to a boil in a large stock pot. In separate pan, he heats the crab meat in some stock, and then adds a generous helping of XO sauce.
When the water comes to a rolling boil, Bissonnette drops in the pici. In just a minute or so, the noodles float to the surface. “See how it just floated? Done,” says Bissonnette. Pulling them from the water with a pair of tongs, he adds, “The only time it’s acceptable to use tongs in my opinion.”
The noodles go straight into the sauce. If the XO sauce looks too thick, add in some of the starchy pasta water, Bissonnette recommends, then let it all cook together with the noodles. “Since the noodles are fresh, it’s best if they cook straight in the sauce for a little bit for more flavor,” he says.
Keeping a super close eye on how long these noodles stay in the sauce isn’t necessary, says Bissonnette, and that’s because the dough is meant to be on the chewy side. “It’s a trooper. It’s never going to be al dente—it’s more like Italian chewy udon,” says Bissonnette. “You can [overcook it], but it’s kinda like tripe: you’ve really gotta try.”
Once the pasta is heated through, Bissonnette seasons the noodles with salt and pepper, then adds lemon juice and zest. “We’re gonna spread the butter around so it’s gonna emulsify without aggravating it too much,” he says, as he cubes bits of butter and drops them around the pan. Finally, he mixes in the herbs and adds a glug of olive oil for shine.
He plates it up and we dive in. The noodles are delightfully chewy, and though the slippery mixture of butter and XO sauce lends an air of overindulgence, the lemon and herbs brighten it up enough to to make us all need a little more.