Visiting Istanbul with his Turkish wife’s family, Oregon chef Vitaly Paley was entranced by the way spices he’d mostly considered sweet were so smoothly woven into savory dishes. Cinnamon and clove in tomato sauce, anise in beef stew, allspice in meatballs. The flavors were background notes, delivering not a heavy-duty punch as they might in Indian curries, but rather a gentle suggestion of sweetness that lingered in the background.
“It’s that can’t-place-it, phantom seasoning that has the ability to make you go, ‘Oh, that’s delicious, mouthwatering, but what is it?’” says Paley, owner for 25 years of Paley’s Place in Portland. “That’s my current thinking, infusing things with the eastern Mediterranean, Ottoman Empire flavors, if you will.”
Paley’s skill at blending such flavors is deliciously demonstrated in his recipe for pasta with pork and mushroom sauce, a balance of meaty, bright, earthy and subtly sweet. The recipe, from his book “The Paley’s Place Cookbook,” combines unexpected flavors that are intensified via technique rather than time.
He begins by liberally seasoning ground pork shoulder with paprika, fennel seed, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and red pepper flakes. He browns the seasoned pork in a mixture of sautéed porcini mushrooms, onion and garlic, then adds liquid in three steps. In 10-minute intervals, he adds first red wine, then canned crushed tomatoes and finally chicken stock, simmering in between. This staggered reduction intensifies the flavor of the sauce, while the meaty mushrooms enrich it, resulting in a ragù-like sauce that resembles a more complex Bolognese without the lengthy simmering.
We’d seen before how warm spices such as cinnamon can balance the acidity of tomatoes, and Paley’s sauce builds on that with other complementary spices. Noticing that many of the spices he added to his ground pork shoulder also show up in Italian sausage, we saw the chance for a shortcut. We could skip grinding meat and calling for a laundry list of seasonings by instead using bulk Italian sausage augmented with ground cinnamon.
To further streamline, we found we could skip browning the meat. With so many rich flavors already in play, the extra step was unnecessary. Plus, cooking the meat only until it was no longer pink ensured it stayed tender as it simmered with the wine and broth. The crushed tomatoes quickly melted into the sauce, simmering just enough to slightly caramelize their juices while preserving their brightness.
Tossed with pappardelle and topped with grated Parmesan cheese, our take on Paley’s pasta came out rich and earthy without being heavy. The subtle cinnamon aroma balanced the acidic tomatoes for a cozy and hearty pasta that would make Paley’s in-laws proud.
“I’m not a fan of cinnamon, allspice or ginger when doing something sweet, but I’m a huge fan of it in savory,” he says. “It really spikes up the flavor.”