Italians are very particular in how they prepare their pasta, a style emulated by chefs and cooks around the world. The phase al dente has become part of the culinary lexicon and roughly analogous to the Swedish lagom or “just right”, more a philosophy than a way to prepare a bowl of noodles. In cookbooks, however, it is defined as spaghetti that has been cooked to perfection, soft enough to be slurped while retaining a slight firmness when bitten into. Pasta is not left alone in a pot of salted water to decide its own fate- it must be fished out periodically and checked between the teeth. Al dente delineates an acceptable meal from that made by an amateur.
On the other side of the spectrum is hamin, the slow cooked stews of the Jews. It is prepared on Friday and forgotten until Saturday afternoon, letting time transform the flavors and textures of the food. There are as many hamin varieties as ethnicities of Jews- from the archetypal Eastern European pottage of beans, potatoes and fatty chunks of meat to Kurdish wheat berries flavored with turmeric. The ingredients need to be hardy enough to withstand long cooking times without collapsing into mush – legumes, grains, root vegetables and tough cuts of beef or lamb. Once combined and placed in the oven, there is no need to hover in the kitchen. The meal takes care of itself.
But then there’s the incongruous spaghetti hamin, a wonderful edible oxymoron. According to the package directions, it takes 10 minutes to cook a bag supermarket fussili. I could prepare approximately 114 consecutive pots of pasta in the time it would take to bring one slow-cooked spaghetti to the table. It is a recipe that bends the rules of conventional kitchen wisdom and may raise the eyebrows of the more traditional. Although I was skeptical the outcome wouldn’t resemble a primitive life form, I was curious enough to give it a try.
The result? Velvety smooth macaroni incased in a layer of crisp golden noodles. It may not be al dente but it is very best of comfort food.
This recipe is an adaptation from two Hebrew cookbooks. The first is called Hamin, by the journalist and gastronomist Sherry Ansky, which is a fascinating look at Shabbat cooking. The second is Grandmother’s Cooking, a book compiled and written by Gil Hovav, a popular cookbook author and television personality in Israel.
500 grams spaghetti or bucatini
8-12 chicken pieces such as thighs and legs
½ cup sunflower oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 or 3 pieces
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Wash the chicken in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. In an oven proof pot that can hold all the ingredients heat ½ cup of oil. Fry the chicken pieces until they are golden on all sides, turning periodically to brown evenly. Transfer the chicken pieces to a large bowl.
With the oil remaining in the pot fry the onions until golden. Add the carrots and garlic and continue to fry for another 30 seconds. Transfer the vegetables, drained of the oil, to the pot with the chicken.
Cook the spaghetti according to package directions (in a large pot of boiling salted water) but reduce the cooking time by 2 minutes. What you want is almost cooked pasta, a bit harder than al dente. Drain and transfer to a bowl.
Pour the oil used to fry the chicken and vegetables over the macaroni and mix until evenly coated. Add paprika, freshly ground black pepper and salt and mix.
Arrange in the pot:
Place about 1/3 of the macaroni in the pot and above that 1/2 of the chicken and vegetables. Continue layering until the top is covered with macaroni. Add one cup of water and cover with parchment paper so the top does not dry out. Bring to a boil. Transfer to a Shabbat hot plate (platat Shabbat) or an oven set at 100⁰C (212⁰F). Cook overnight.