This calabrian chili pasta is the type of weeknight meal that satisfies your cravings, with notes of sweet fennel, garlic, onion, and spicy calabrian chili.
If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan of recipes that combine salty, spicy, sweet, and acidic flavors into one dish. And one day I asked myself, “What would a pasta dish look like with these flavors?” So I began experimenting. I started by sauteing onions, garlic, and fennel in a bath of oil until soft and golden brown. Then, I cooked down tomato paste to incorporate an acidic, sweet, and caramelized flavor. Each time I tested this dish, I’d add some form of heat — sometimes calabrian chili paste, sometimes red pepper flakes. The resulting dish is spicy, sweet, slightly oily and acidic, with a touch of saltiness from the parm.
Inspiration for this dish
Looking back, this calabrian chili pasta was likely very loosely inspired by a combination of a few dishes: Alison Roman’s caramelized shallot pasta, the delicious, spicy sauce Biang Biang noodles are typically eaten with, and Szechuan style Indian chili tomato garlic paneer. In the end, this dish is not authentic to Italian cuisine (or any of the other cuisines mentioned) by any means, but it is very tasty.
This dish is structured like a recipe, but I leave the spice levels up to you, as they can vary so widely. Adjust the heat according to your own spice levels. And if you feel like the dish is missing something, go through the list of flavors and ask yourself, does it need more salt? Then add more parm. Sweetness? Try a bit of honey. Acidity? Add a splash of vinegar. Heat? Garnish with some chili flakes. I challenge you to make this recipe satisfy your own cravings – make it your own! And if you make any adjustments, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
What is calabrian chili paste?
Calabrian chili paste is a paste typically made up of Calabrian chilies, oil, salt, vinegar, and herbs such as basil. Calabrian chilies originate from, you guessed it, Calabria, Italy. Flavorwise, they have a spicy kick with a bit of fruitiness. Calabrian chilies are dried, pickled, and often submerged in olive oil. If you’ve ever had ‘Nduja, you may recognize the flavor as it’s a spicy spreadable sausage made with Calabrian chilies. Since discovering this chili paste, I make sure to keep it in my fridge at all times. It’s got a lot of heat and a bit of acidity, and it’s a perfect addition to pasta sauces and dips.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into each of the ingredients in this dish! I’ll also cover substitutions, so you can work with what you already have in the pantry.
- Onion: Sauteeing onion brings a nice amount of sweetness and umami flavor to the dish. Feel free to use whatever combination of onions you have here! I’ve used sweet onions, white onions, shallots, and red onions with success, though I prefer red onions and shallots.
- Fennel: I love the combination of fennel with onion and tomato. Fennel adds a nice sweetness, and when cooked down, it provides subtle notes of caramelized anise flavor. Don’t skip the fennel here – it really adds dimension that the sauce needs to come together. Can’t find fresh fennel? You can use fennel seeds too.
- Garlic: What’s a pasta dish without garlic? I go heavy on the garlic here to add some umami flavor and balance out the sweetness of the dish.
- Calabrian chili paste: Calabrian chili paste provides the heat in this pasta. I like Tutto Calabria, which you can find online, and Delallo’s chili paste (often found at Wegman’s in the US). Any calabrian chili paste will do, but just keep in mind that they’ll all have slightly different levels of heat, so add a bit at a time and adjust as needed! If you can’t find calabrian chilies, you can use red pepper flakes.
- Tomato paste: A little bit of tomato paste helps bulk up the sauce and provide a bit of acidity.
- Honey: Honey adds a nice balance of sweetness.
- Vinegar: Vinegar adds a little tartness to the dish.
- Dried pasta: I’m a huge fan of pairing the sauce with mafaldine, which is a long ribbon-shaped pasta, but it can be difficult to find. I think a bucatini or spaghetti, or even a tubular pasta like caserecce or rigatoni would be great here.
How to make calabrian chili pasta
I’ve created a handy video for you below so you can follow along as you try the recipe! This pasta is relatively straightforward. You’ll saute some onion, garlic, fennel in oil, then add your calabrian chili paste. Cook down some tomato paste and honey, then finish seasonings, and toss with pasta!
Did you try this recipe? I would love to hear your feedback! Be sure to rate the recipe and leave a comment below.
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Calabrian Chili Tomato Garlic Pasta Recipe
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 1/2 fennel bulb, finely diced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 3/4 teaspoon Calabrian chili paste or red pepper flakes, plus more if desired, and use only 1/4 teaspoon if you're sensitive to spice
- Salt to taste
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar
- 8 ounces dried pasta, I like either a wide, flat noodle, like pappardelle or mafaldine, or a tubular pasta, like casarecce or rigatoni
- 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
- In a cold dutch oven or heavy-bottomed skillet, add oil, onion, fennel, and garlic.
- Set the heat to medium, and let vegetables cook for 15 minutes until soft and translucent. It’s okay for these vegetables to turn golden brown, but you don’t want to go any further past that. As they continue to cook and release moisture, you can turn the heat down to low if you see they’re browning too quickly.
- Add chili paste or red pepper flakes, and season the vegetables with salt. Let cook for another 5 minutes on medium-low until the chili begins releasing oils and smells aromatic.
- Meanwhile, set a large pot of water to boil.
- Add tomato paste and honey to the vegetables, and stir to incorporate. Let cook for another 5 minutes at medium heat, until the tomato paste turns from bright red to dark red and starts to caramelize.
- Add the vinegar to the sauce and stir to incorporate, then turn the heat to low.
- At this point, you’ve made the base of your sauce. The sauce will eventually get mixed into your pasta (with some pasta water to loosen the sauce), so it should taste slightly more pungent than you want it to be. In other words, it should be slightly spicier, more acidic, and saltier. If you want it spicier, feel free to add in more of the chili paste or red pepper flakes. Depending on your spice tolerance and the heat of the chilies you have, you could very well be adding in an additional tablespoon (or even two).
- Once the water is boiling, salt the water and add your pasta. Cook until a minute or two before al dente.
- To finish your pasta, keep the skillet with sauce on low. Once the pasta is ready, transfer the pasta to the skillet with a slotted spoon. Reserve at least 3/4 cup of pasta water.
- Increase the heat of the skillet to medium until gently simmering. Toss the pasta with the sauce, and loosen it with a bit of pasta water at a time.
- Let the sauce reduce for 1-2 minutes, then add more pasta water if desired until you’ve reached your desired consistency. The sauce should cling to the pasta; it should not be soupy at all.
- Season again with salt and add additional chili paste or red pepper if desired.
- Garnish with cheese and serve immediately.
- For the onions, you can use whatever combination of onions you have here — I’ve used yellow onions, red onions, and shallots
- This dish has a good amount of oil — if you don’t want it to have that oiliness, you can strain most of the oil out at this point (leave at least 1 tablespoon). Reserve the oil for another use — it’s going to be very flavorful, so you can use it in other dishes or sauces.
- This dish is about your taste preference. I’ve built the flavor profile such that it has a nice mix of sweet, salty, acidic, and spicy flavors — but ultimately you should season it as you like it. If you like it less spicy, add less chili. If you like it very sweet, add more honey.
- If you can’t find fennel bulb, you can use 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds. Just make sure to use 1 1/2 medium onions (instead of 1 medium onion) so you keep the same amount of sauce.