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The sauce does the trick

In this hearty Mexican dish, watch a flavorful puree disappear before your eyes -- and into every strand of vermicelli. Serve it for brunch.

January 22, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

ONE of the best pasta tricks I ever learned came from an Italian friend who would always commandeer my kitchen after a big party to make recovery spaghetti. He never put the sauce on the pasta. He put the pasta in the sauce, on the stove, and mixed it up really well. A little butter beforehand made the two parts cling together like potatoes and cream.

Giorgio would undoubtedly be horrified to hear this, but I've now found a Mexican dish that goes him one better: It eliminates the middle pot.

Sopa seca is vermicelli that actually cooks in its sauce, so that every skinny strand winds up saturated with flavor, and chile flavor at that. You don't even have to boil water or add butter. The pasta is fried golden before it goes into the sauce, which keeps it from simmering away to mush. And it's finished off in the oven with chorizo and lots of cheese, making it an irresistible cross between enchiladas and lasagna.

Add scrambled eggs on the side, and even the most chauvinistic Italian could see why it's the perfect pasta for a Sunday brunch or supper.

The idea of Mexican pasta sounds as odd as dry soup, which is the literal translation of sopa seca. But any Latino grocery sells fideo, as vermicelli is known below the border. And the dish has always been served as the second course in the classic midday meal in Mexico, after the "liquid" soup.

Sopa seca can also be made with plain old rice, for something like a poor cook's paella, but the fideo makes it more of a one-dish wonder. Rice would be a casserole for a family. Pasta dresses for company.

Making it might not be something I would indulge in for a desperation dinner, which is what I usually consider pasta on a weeknight with no time to shop, and so it's particularly suited to Sunday. It's not complicated, but it does take a few careful steps.

The vermicelli has to be fried at just the right temperature, so that it toasts without either burning or sopping up too much oil. The sauce is not just a matter of simmering tomatoes, garlic and basil; you first have to puree griddle-softened chiles with tomatoes and herbs. Once you add the pasta to the chile paste, thinned with chicken stock, it almost cooks itself.

Ancho or chipotle chiles are most traditional in sopa seca, but you can use any other type. You can substitute tomatillos for the tomatoes (canned, of course). You can omit the chorizo, or substitute corn or zucchini for it, and try other cheeses. But a creamy garnish is the essential finishing touch. The best choice is Mexican crema, which is one of the most seductive ideas to migrate north since Brazilian music. Creme fraiche or even sour cream will do the job richly, though.

For all its Mexican roots, sopa seca is pasta to the core. It's always best eaten right out of the pan.

*

Sopa seca

Total time: 55 minutes

Servings: 6

2 ancho chiles, stemmed

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1 cup tomato puree

3 cups chicken stock

3/4 cup olive or peanut oil

6 ounces fideo (vermicelli)

Salt

1 Mexican chorizo, casing removed and filling crumbled

3/4 cup grated Jack cheese

3/4 cup grated Cheddar cheese

Mexican crema or creme fraiche

1. Toast the chiles in a small, dry skillet over medium heat until aromatic and very pliable, turning once or twice, about 5 minutes. Using scissors over a blender jar, cut them into thin strips. Add the garlic, onion, oregano and tomato puree and process on top speed until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve.

2. Bring the stock to a boil, remove from the heat and set aside.

3. Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the fideo (break strands if in bundles). Cook, tossing, until golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a colander set over a bowl. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil; return the skillet to the heat.

4. Add the chile mixture to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 5 minutes. Add stock and season with salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then add the fideo.

5. Lower the heat, cover the pan and cook until the pasta absorbs the liquid, about 15 minutes. It will still be slightly soupy.

6. While the fideo cooks, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cook the chorizo in a small skillet over medium heat until just done, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels; keep warm.

7. When the fideo is cooked, place in a shallow 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle the chorizo over it. Toss the Jack and Cheddar cheeses together and sprinkle evenly over the top. Transfer to the oven and bake until the cheeses melt, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve at once, with crema or creme fraiche for garnish.

Each serving: 516 calories; 1,021 mg. sodium; 44 mg. cholesterol; 44 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams protein; 1.67 grams fiber.

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