Spicy Pasta with Cheese and Cilantro Pesto, based on a recipe by Marlena Spieler. (Photo/Faith Kramer)
Spicy Pasta with Cheese and Cilantro Pesto, based on a recipe by Marlena Spieler. (Photo/Faith Kramer)

When Marlena Spieler died, I found solace in her spicy pasta

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There are some dishes that just soothe one’s soul. When I learned about the death of Marlena Spieler, a food writer and my friend, I turned to one of her recipes for comfort.

Spieler, who was Jewish, was born in Sacramento and lived and worked in the Bay Area before her move to England more than 30 years ago. I got to know her during her trips back to the San Francisco area. Spieler, who was 74, died July 6 at her U.K. home. She leaves behind her husband, two daughters, a son-in-law, a grandson and many friends and fans.

Spieler was known for her global approach to food. She wrote or contributed to more than 70 cookbooks, including several Jewish ones. She was beloved by fellow food writers for her enthusiasm for food and life and for her unqualified support of others in the field. I never saw her without her trademark bright red lipstick or her green-and-white polka dot tote, which she crammed full of everything from runny cheese to leftovers.

Marlena Spieler wrote that she carried her signature green and white polkadot handbag "to most corners of the world." (Photo/JTA)
Marlena Spieler with her signature green and white polka dot bag. (Photo/JTA)

This is my adapted version of her Pasta Arrabbiata with Cilantro Pesto from “Hot & Spicy: Unusual, Innovative Recipes from the World’s Fiery Cuisines.” The book was a birthday gift, and I made this the very next day. I loved the bite of the garlic, the heat of the red peppers and the cool herbal note of the pesto from first taste.

My take on her recipe makes a quick main course or side dish. Make the pesto while cooking the sauce or make it a day ahead. Refrigerate but use at room temperature.

Spicy Pasta with Cheese and Cilantro Pesto

Serves 4-5

Inspired by Marlena Spieler’s “Hot & Spicy”

  • 1 lb. penne pasta
  • ½ tsp. salt, divided, plus to taste
  • 2 Tbs. unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbs. finely chopped garlic
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1¼ tsp. red pepper flakes, divided, plus to taste
  • 8 oz. can plain tomato sauce
  • 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes with liquid
  • 4 oz. Parmesan or Asiago cheese, cut into slivers or thick shreds
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • 3 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese
  • Cilantro Pesto (see below)

Bring large pot of water to boil. Stir in ¼ tsp. salt. Add penne. Cook according to package directions until al dente, about 11 minutes (so it’s tender but with some resistance when bitten). Drain. Toss with 2 Tbs. butter. Keep warm.

While pasta is cooking, make sauce. Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute (do not brown). Add 1 tsp. red pepper flakes and stir. Add ¼ tsp. salt, tomato sauce and diced tomatoes with liquid. Bring to low boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until volume is reduced by half. Taste and stir in additional salt and/or red pepper to taste.

Mix sauce with pasta in large bowl. Toss with slivered cheese. Garnish with chopped cilantro and sprinkle with ¼ tsp. (or to taste) red pepper flakes and grated Parmesan. Pass pesto or serve with spoonful on top of each portion.

Cilantro Pesto: Purée 1 Tbs. chopped garlic in food processor. Add 1 cup cilantro, 3 Tbs. olive oil, 2 oz. Parmesan cheese (cut into small chunks) and 2 Tbs. slivered almonds. Purée until smooth and creamy, adding oil by teaspoon as needed.

Notes: To make it closer to Spieler’s original, omit canned tomatoes and red pepper flake garnish. Substitute Monterey Jack cheese. For pesto, omit almonds and use 2 Tbs. oil.

For a parve/vegan version: Substitute 2 Tbs. olive oil for butter. Omit cheese in pasta and pesto. Use 2 Tbs. oil in pesto.

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is faithkramer.com. Contact her at [email protected].