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Escape the red-sauce rut with this punchy chili crisp-tahini pasta

By Joe Yonan Washington Post

Americans have a funny relationship with pasta. It has become such an integral part of our cooking, but we tend to fall into one of two camps: We either depend on recipes that are rooted in Italian tradition, or we’ve strayed – or perhaps galloped! – so far from tradition that we don’t even think of pasta as necessarily Italian anymore. For both groups, it’s all too easy to get into a rut.

The second group can be paralyzed by choices. The first can get stuck in red-sauce land.

Dan Pashman felt this a couple years ago. He had just developed a new pasta shape – cascatelli – that he partnered with manufacturer Sfoglini to produce, partly as a way to explore the process from start to finish for his podcast, “The Sporkful.” He designed cascatelli to work with many different sauces, but when listeners sent him photos of the dishes they created with it, “Everyone was just putting tomato sauce on it,” he told me in a Zoom interview. “I was crestfallen.”

He realized he was no different. “It’s just so easy to grab a jar of sauce or to throw together some tomato sauce,” he said. “You don’t need to look at a recipe. Everyone knows how to do it. You kind of can’t go wrong.”

And yet he also had the sense that home cooks might welcome ideas for creative, fun ways to cook with pasta – dishes whose only criteria is deliciousness. Selfishly speaking, he also wanted ideas for getting out of his own red-sauce rut. When you untether from tradition, he thought, from the cacio e pepe and the marinara and the carbonara (as wonderful as they are), isn’t the sky the limit?

His first cookbook proves his point, with a title that sums up the mission in a cheeky but accurate way: “Anything’s Pastable.”

In the book, Pashman, with the help of recipe developers he collaborated with, adds scallion oil and runny fried eggs to bucatini, Indian tadka to spaghettoni, Cajun crawfish to carbonara. He works pasta into the Middle Eastern dish shakshuka, subs manicotti for the tortillas in a riff on enchiladas and, in one of my favorite strokes of brilliance, bakes fettuccine on a sheet pan, getting it crispy on the bottom, and then tops it with tomato sauce and mozzarella for, yes, “pasta pizza.”

As anyone who has listened to his podcast knows, Pashman is an obsessive; the very first episode was devoted to a debate about the best way to reheat a leftover Cubano sandwich. He takes that same approach in his cookbook, applying it to, among other things, his analysis of pasta shapes – including his assertion that penne and ziti are among the worst shapes.

“People seem to think that tubes are the only way to hold sauce,” he told me. “It feels intuitive, like it should work, like, this shape has a hollow space that things can go in. But the fact is, all the tossing and mixing in the world is not going to get most sauces inside most tubes.”

Instead, Pashman likes some tubular pastas – particularly bucatini and rigatoni – for their chewiness and springiness, examples of one of his three standards for pasta shapes: toothsinkability (in addition to forkability and sauceability). Penne and ziti, you see, “are not wide enough to flatten into a thick and satisfying bite like rigatoni, and not narrow enough to spring back against bite force like bucatini,” he writes. “Just about the only thing they’re springy enough to do is spring off your fork as you’re trying to get them to your mouth.”

As you can tell, one of his prime obsessions is texture, so the recipes in “Anything’s Pastable” are designed for maximum textural variation (or, as Pashman puts it, “the phenomenon sensory scientists call dynamic contrast”). He includes recipes for seven takes on crunchy pangrattato – at its simplest, seasoned toasted breadcrumbs – using such ingredients as furikake, Ritz crackers and corn nuts.

Given his love of texture, you’d expect him to also be a chili crisp fanatic, and he is, working with fellow cookbook author (and former “Sporkful” intern) James Park to develop two pasta dishes that use it. One of them combines chili crisp with tahini for the sauce and adds fried shallots on top, and it’s super simple to make.

The recipe depends on a generous amount of pasta cooking water, whose starchiness seems to magically pull together sauces into just the right consistency. You mix some of it into a mixture of tahini, chili crisp, vinegar and soy sauce, and save more for when you toss the pasta with the sauce. The fried shallots enter the picture in two ways, too: sprinkled on top, of course, but also mixed throughout, beautifully demonstrating Pashman’s multiple-textures-in-one-bite approach.

During our interview, he mentioned that some ideas were more difficult to make “sauceable” than others. Not to focus on the negative, but I was dying to know if any had to be outright rejected for that reason. I was imagining a clever way to twist his book’s title into a cute ending for this column.

The idea was bo ssam, one of his favorite Korean dishes. When he and Park tried to turn it into a pasta dish, he said, “we just never really could get those flavors, textures and ingredients to come together into a sauce that we were happy with.”

Does that mean, Dan, that not everything is pastable?

Apparently not. The base for their experiments ended up as a ssamjang aglio e olio, adding the spicy Korean paste to the Italian “garlic and oil” dish, with crushed peanuts as a crunchy topping. Yet again, Dan Pashman is right.

Chili Crisp Tahini Pasta With Fried Shallots

Adapted from “Anything’s Pastable” by Dan Pashman (William Morrow, 2024).

Spicy, savory chili crisp and nutty tahini make a satisfying pasta sauce, but oniony crunch in the form of fried shallots takes this dish to the next level. Dan Pashman, creator and host of “The Sporkful” podcast, designed the chili crisp and shallot sauce so it would get caught in the edges and ruffles of cascatelli, the custom shape he collaborated on with Sfoglini Pasta. We used the more readily available radiatore (named because it’s shaped like old-fashioned radiators), but other short ruffled shapes such as gemelli, casarecce or reginetti work well, too. For more ideas on what to do with chili crisp, see this primer. You’ll end up with a little extra shallot-infused oil, which you can refrigerate and use anywhere you’d use olive oil.


Fine salt

1 pound short, ruffled pasta, such as radiatore, cascatelli, reginetti or casarecce

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 large shallots (6 ounces total), very thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, finely grated or pressed

⅓ cup well-stirred tahini

3 tablespoons Chili crisp, plus more for serving (see notes)

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (see substitutions)

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce (see substitutions)


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions until a little shy of al dente, about 2 minutes less than the low end of the range. Reserve 2 cups of the pasta cooking water, then drain. Return the pasta to the pot and cover to keep warm, off the heat.

While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, set a large fine-mesh strainer over a medium heatproof bowl. Have a plate ready near your workspace.

In a large Dutch oven or high-sided skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up the rings, until deeply browned and crispy, 10 to 12 minutes. Pour the oil and shallots through the strainer into the heatproof bowl, and shake the strainer so as much oil drains as possible. Transfer the shallots to the prepared plate and spread in an even layer. Reserve the oil; you’ll have a little less than ½ cup.

Return the Dutch oven or skillet to medium heat and pour in 2 tablespoons of the reserved shallot oil. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant and golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tahini, chili crisp, vinegar and soy sauce and whisk until smooth. Stir in ¾ cup of the reserved pasta water and cook, stirring, until fragrant and thickened, about 2 minutes.

Add the pasta to the Dutch oven or skillet, along with another ¾ cup of the pasta water, and toss until the pasta is evenly coated, with the sauce clinging to it but still pooling a little at the bottom of the pan. If the sauce seems too thick, add more pasta water, 2 tablespoons at a time. Remove from the heat and stir in half of the fried shallots. Taste, and season with salt if needed.

Transfer the pasta to a serving dish or individual bowls, top with the remaining fried shallots, drizzle with a little more chili crisp and serve hot, with more chili crisp on the side.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings (makes about 8 cups)

Substitutions: Sesame allergy? Use peanut butter, sunflower seed butter or another nut or seed butter you like. Instead of chili crisp, use salsa macha. Replace apple cider vinegar with rice or white wine vinegar. Instead of soy sauce, use tamari (gluten-free) or liquid aminos.

Notes: Dan Pashman prefers Lao Gan Ma chili crisp, one of the oldest and best-known brands, but you can use your favorite; just note that since they vary in spice level, you may need to adjust the amount to taste.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to four days. The dressed pasta thickens when chilled, so feel free to loosen it with water or more pasta water when reheating. The extra shallot oil can also be refrigerated for up to four days.