DASHIELL HAMMETT’S PASTA NOIR
“Thinking’s a dizzy business.” The Dain Curse
1 egg yolk
200 grams of flour
Salt and pepper
1 cuttlefish ink sack
4-6 ripe tomatoes
8 large shrimp
1 hot pepper
It had rained 4 straight days in the city. On Monday it had rained miniature Tabbies and Chihuahuas, on Tuesday Siamese and Boxers, by Wednesday Pumas and Artic Wolves. Today was Thursday and the rain had switched genus. As Spade gazed through the grease-streaked window at the giraffes and elephants coming down outside thick as a 3-day-old cup of Effie’s coffee he whispered to himself, “It’s coming down like cats and dogs.”
With no new orders and Miles on vacation the kitchen had been as quiet as a bound and gagged ostrich that’d buried it’s head in quicksand, so Spade had let Effie go home early. The late news was over, no news as usual. He decided it was time to do something about the rumbling coming from his gut that sounded like a 1-run Mets-Yankees game in the bottom of the ninth. “Enough bad overextended clichés,” he said out loud, “time I made some fresh pasta.”
“Can I help you…kneed your dough,” a cool, smoky voice responded from the doorway. Spade whipped himself around. Standing there was a brown-eyed brunette whose smile shown like a bright June sunrise in the Florida Keys. In fact everything about her shined, from her translucent hair and long eyelashes to her upturned lips that seemed to be constantly whispering “yes”. She was wearing a tight white dress with tiny red writing on it that curved in and out in all the right places. Over her chest the writing bulged out and became legible. On her right side it read “How Do,” on her left, “You Do.”
“Rachael,” the dame said as she stepped forward gingerly holding out her hand, “Rachael Sweetray. But my friends call me 30 mn.”
“Spade,” he replied while offering a handshake, “Sam Spade, private chef. I try not to make too many friends. Why 30 mn.?”
“Care for a demonstration?”
She didn’t wait for him to finish. Instead she flashed a smile and went straight past Sam to the kitchen where he and Miles made the meals for Pinkerton Catering Inc. As Ms. Sweetray leaned forward on her black high heels to reach into the cupboard for the flour she turned her head and winked. Her dress slid up a little over her back and where it curved out below it read “My Place” on the left side, “Or Yours” on the right. Sam walked over and grabbed 2 eggs from the refrigerator. “What’ve you got in mind, Ms. Sweetray?”
“I was on my way to the studio to try out a new recipe and just happen to have a couple of squid ink sacks on ice in my purse. Care for some tagliatelle noir?”
Sam wasn’t born yesterday, nor the day before, and not even the week before that. He’d seen Ms. Sweetray’s cooking show and when she mentioned the iced ink he knew she was fishing for information on Miles’ award-winning pasta noir. But it was late, and Sam was hungry, so he decided to play along. If nothing else, at least he wouldn’t be cooking for a change. And he didn’t mind what he’d be reading at the table, either. “Sounds like a lot of trouble.”
Ms. Sweetray gently slid her hands over his slowly took the white, smooth eggs. “Well, you know what they say. To…have an omelet, you’ve got to…open an egg.” She set the eggs next to the fountain-shaped form of flour she’d prepared on the counter, then reached into her purse and took out the squid-ink sacks. She cracked open the eggs and poured them and the ink into the middle of the flour, slowly mixing the liquid with the inner edge of the disappearing ‘fountain’ with a fork until it all formed one homogenous ball of dark pasta dough. She worked the ball for about 20 minutes as professionally as LeBron James works a half-court in the 4th quarter, first using the fork, then her hands, and finally her shoulders and body weight to fold in the toughening dough, adding a pinch of flour from time to time until it felt and looked right, firm but pliable with tiny bubbles forming within. Then she put the dough between 2 transparent baking sheets and set it aside to cool off.
“Not bad,” Sam said when she was done, “you got good hands, Ms. Sweetray.”
“There’s half an hour to kill before we roll the dough. Maybe you’d like me to…roll something else in the meantime,” she answered with a look from her radiant brown eyes that instantly doubled the pace of global warming. “30 minutes enough time for you, Mr. Spade?”
Sam didn’t fall for it. Sure, Ms. Sweetray looked as tasty as a plate of truffle linguini, and he had a big appetite. But he’d had his noodles overcooked that way before, and it was gonna’ take more than a little creative writing to sauce him. He knew there was something fishy about the dame’s squid-ink. He opened the fridge and took out a pasta dough he’d made himself that afternoon. “Ms. Sweetray, I’d need the whole night to…plate your dish. But I had a hunch I wouldn’t be eating alone tonight.” Sam sprinkled some flour on a rolling pin and the countertop, then quickly flattened the dough to an even 1/2 centimeter width, then folded the resulting sheet, took a knife and sliced 2 servings worth of tagliatelle faster than a .22 automatic empties a half-empty cartridge.
“My, my, Sam. I see you know how to use your…pin. ”
“You gotta’ keep the pressure constant…”
“…as you smooth out the flour, I know. I’ve handled a long, hard…roller or two. But can you make a sauce that will satisfy the steamy, wet noodles once they’re ready?”
Sam reached up into the cupboard to grab some tuna ventresca and tiny capers, ingredients that were as far from Miles’ recipe as Starbuck’s coffee is from real espresso, but when he turned back Ms. Sweetray was pointing a gun straight at his…eggs.
The cat had jumped, the cradle was out of the bag, the fan was on and something that smelled had had hit it. No more mixed metaphors. “Spade, we’re not interested in any regular caper-tuna-parsley and olive oil pasta dish. We want Miles’ recipe and we want it now. So start talking, or I’ll turn you into Swiss cheese.”
“Ms. Sweetray, what a shame. I was just getting an appetite. But if you wait a…” Sam was interrupted by a hard whap that hit the back of his head like a 5th helping of Thanksgiving dinner. As he fell to the floor like an unhooked salami in a pizza parlor he heard a male voice with a thick northeastern accent shout “Bam!”
When he came to Sam heard it was still raining chimpanzees and wombats outside. After the room he was in stopped spinning around like a mango shake in a fast blender his eyes focused on a short guy in a Puerto Rican suit staring at him with a stupid grin. Once Sam’s eyes were all the way open the guy got up and left the room without a peep. Sam tried to get up only to find that his hands and feet were tied to his chair. A minute later the short guy came back into the room followed by Ms. Sweetray and a tall, mean-looking Joe with straight blond hair, small, penetrating eyes behind wire-rimmed eye-glasses and a bony face that looked like it came off a German officer from a WWII flick. “Good evening,” he presented himself, “Mr. Spade. My name is Mr. Goodeats and this is my associate, Meryl E. I take it you rested well?”
C-studio. Sam knew their ratings had fallen off over the past year and they’d been looking for some new faces to boost their audience. They’d contacted Pinkerton Catering after that article in Food and Wine that had called Miles and Sam ‘the new cuisine makers’. They’d said no thanks to the studio faster than you can delete a spam offer for a male-patterned baldness miracle cure from your e-mail. Sam and Miles were purists, real private chefs that liked spending their days behind a stove making new dishes, not mugging for close-ups. But the studio must’ve figured if they couldn’t get Pinkerton Catering to sign on that they could steal their recipes and give’em to some hunk and bimbo team that couldn’t make garlic bread without the directions scrolling down in front of’em on an off-camera monitor.
“Like an apple pie on top of the living room credenza,” Sam answered. “Ms. Sweetray. Is it Mr. Goodeats here that cooks your noodles or does everyone at the studio get a forkful when they get an appetite?”
Meryl gave Sam a cheap shot that rattled Sam’s teeth like ice cubes in a barman’s shaker at happy hour. Then the little guy put his mouth close to Sam’s ear and shouted “Bam!”
“That’s enough, Meryl,” Mr. Goodeats said. “You’re not going to make this easy, are you Spade? But we’ve got ways.”
“Looks to me like all you’ve got is a hard-boiled egg and one dried out chicken.”
“Very well, Mr. Spade, if that’s how you want it. 30 mn., I think it’s time we introduced our guest to double M.”
Ms. Sweetray opened the door and left the room. Goodeats and Meryl pushed Sam’s chair behind. The 4 of them went through some dark, empty kitchen studios until they came to one with the lights on, a few pots and pans steaming on the stove and a fat guy with hungry eyes and red hair standing in the shadows on the side. As they got close Sam recognized who it was. Alibat.
“Sam,” Alibat smiled as Spade came in, “good to see you.”
“Mario. Hope you don’t get the wrong idea if I don’t get up. Somehow I’m not surprised to see you.” Mario Alibat, alias double M, had a long-standing grudge with Pinkerton Catering ever since Miles and Mario had met in their early days in the Italian countryside. MM never had gotten over the silver medal in the risotto competition. Miles got the gold. “You ought to know you’ll never make me squeal.”
“Sam, Sam, Sam, you overestimate yourself.”
“No, Mario. I never estimate myself. But I know how to estimate you. You’ll never cook like Miles.”
Sam had hit a chord. “Have it your way, Spade,” Alibat hissed as he took the lid off one of the pots, “but I know how…sensitive you are to some things.”
“I lost my senses at least 5 paragraphs ago.”
“Really? Then I suppose you’re not interested in my…seafood risotto.”
Sam’s stomach was as hollow as an outdoor swimming pool in Buffalo in January. And despite his being unable to let go of a grudge and an ego that was at least as big as his belly, Mario cooked some fine, tasty grub. Yeah, he was interested in Mario’s risotto, as interested as a hound dog on a fox hunt.
“What do you want, Alibat?”
“For starters give this a taste and tell me what you think. Meryl, would you plate some rice for Mr. Spade?” The short guy let out another ‘Bam!’ and went behind the stove. He turned up the heat, grabbed a wooden spoon and started stirring the rice around hard and fast as J-Lo on a dance floor. Then he opened the cooler, grabbed a can of cream and poured it in. Sam felt as if he was watching somebody shooting Bambi. Repeatedly. “Thank you, Meryl,” Mario said, “Now, Ms. Sweetray, would you…”
Ms. Sweetray took a big spoon from a drawer and plopped it into the rice. Then Mr. Goodeats forced open Sam’s mouth and the dame stepped over and packed it full. It tasted like a salty fish banana split. So that was the gig. They were going to torture Sam with bad Italian grains until he spilled his beans.
“Good, Sam? Like that? For the next course I put some egg noodles on to boil 20 minutes ago…”
Before Mario could finish his sentence the studio door slammed wide open. A man in a classy Italian suit shouted, “Lady and gentlemen, nobody move.”
Seeing as the man was holding a pistol that had a barrel as big as a pork roast, nobody moved. Sam would’ve but his hands and arms were still tied to the chair, so instead he said, “Miles, you’re a little late for the main course but if you feel like stickin’ around I think Ms. Sweetray here could get you some coffee and dessert.”
“You all right, Sam?”
“Been better. Good to see you. Would you get me out of this chair?”
Back in his kitchen office the next day Sam lit up a smoke, slid in a Dexter Gordon CD, leaned back on the sofa and listened as the sad notes from Gordon’s sax mixed in with the meows and woofs coming from the raindrops hitting the rooftop outside. Miles had taken over consignment for the weekend. He’d told Sam to take a break. It’d been quite a Thursday. Sure, when Max had gotten back from the airport late that night and saw the uncooked tagliatelle sitting on the counter he figured pretty quick what must have come down. Luckily Lt. Marchesi over at headquarters was a regular, so when Miles called the Lieutenant had moved faster than a Mazerati on the autobahn. Mario, Mr. Goodeats, the whole gang from C-studio were rounded up and put in the cooler. Even Ms. Sweetray. She’d decided to make a deal with the cops and the prosecuting attorney said she’d be out in 1 to 2 with good behavior. Maybe Sam would give her a call once she was free. He was always looking for a good read. Pinkerton Catering’s pasta noir was still a mystery.
The recipe: (For the pasta, see paragraph 12.)
For the sauce: peel and seed the tomatoes, then dice them along with the parsley with a large knife into a rough puree and spoon half evenly into the bottom of each plate. Peel the shrimp, set the meat aside and make a reduction from the heads and some water, passing the resulting liquid first through strainer. Remove the seeds and heat-producing lining from a hot pepper, then wash and dice the pepper. Sauté the shrimp 2 minutes per side in a pan with olive oil, adding some dry Vermouth about a minute before they’re done and turn off immediately once the alcohol has evaporated (use your nose). As the shrimp cooks, boil the fresh tagliatelle in salted water rapidly, a minute or two minutes. Pour the well-strained tagliatelle into the pan with the shrimp and mix, pour the reduction over top, then put half into each plate on top of the pureed tomato and parsley. Sprinkle the ‘tamed’ hot pepper and some fresh olive oil and a little pepper to taste. Serve warm, not hot. Accompany with a good white burgundy.