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Mexican-Italian Fusion Fun

Dinner Tonight! | LEARNING TO COOK / MARION CUNNINGHAM

May 12, 1999|MARION CUNNINGHAM

My experience with fusion food is that too often it doesn't fuse. But not long ago I ate at Cafe Sol in Altadena, a restaurant that succeeds in combining Italian and Mexican cuisines. It is hard to get two disparate food styles to blend, but this restaurant really pulls it off.

Since that dinner I've tried different pastas finished with Mexican ingredients, and I've found it really brings out the best in both cuisines.

There are a few things to remember when cooking a dish like this, though:

* Although some people make a lot of fuss about fresh pasta, for many dishes, dried is really better. And it's almost always better than any of the fresh pastas that you can buy in the refrigerator case. Pick a good brand, like Barilla or DeCecco.

* Be sure to cook the pasta in a lot of water, at least 4 quarts. If you use too little water or too small a pan, the pasta will stick together.

* If you cook pasta often, it is worth it to buy a very big pot, preferably 6 to 8 quarts. You don't need to spend a lot of money, though; a thin aluminum pot will work as well as the fanciest copper one. If you do want to spend more on a heavy pan, you can also use it for making soup.

* When making a quick sauce like this, remember that the first thing you must do is set the pasta water to boil. It will take as long to do that and cook the pasta as it will to fix the sauce.

Cunningham's newest book is "Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham" (Alfred A. Knopf).

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Pasta With Green Chiles, Tomatoes and Cilantro

Active Preparation Time: 15 minutes * Total Work Time: 30 minutes * Vegetarian * Easy

This pasta is particularly good when served with a crisp green salad and warm corn or flour tortillas. To warm the tortillas, smear one side of each tortilla with a teaspoon of olive oil, then stack all the tortillas, oil side up, and wrap them in foil. Place in 325-degree oven until warmed through, about 10 minutes.

4 quarts water

Salt

1 pound spaghetti

2 onions

8 cloves garlic

1/4 cup olive oil

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes (plain, no added ingredients or flavors)

1 (7-ounce) can chopped green chilies

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

2 bunches cilantro, chopped (1 cup)

* Bring water and 1 tablespoon salt to boil over high heat. When water boils, add pasta. Using fork, stir pasta so that it doesn't stick. If water boils over, turn heat down slightly, but keep it boiling. Dried pasta usually takes about 12 to 15 minutes to cook. Set a timer to start checking on doneness in 10 minutes. To test, fish out a strand of spaghetti, run it under cold water and take a bite. It should be tender. Drain spaghetti in colander in sink. Don't worry about a little leftover water. Put spaghetti back in dry pot off heat and cover it.

* While pasta is cooking, finely chop onion and garlic and put aside in separate bowls.

* Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, tomatoes (juice and all), green chilies, vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Simmer until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes.

* Cut off stems from bunches of cilantro and discard them. Chop leaves coarsely and stir into sauce. Taste sauce and add salt if necessary.

* Put drained spaghetti in bowl, pour on hot sauce and mix and toss so sauce coats spaghetti.

6 servings. Each serving: 414 calories; 615 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 70 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 1.43 grams fiber.

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