Wednesday, 22 September 2010


I like pasta, a lot. My wife she no likey the pasta so much. What to do? For one, I admit that the way I cook pasta is the standard American half-assed way to cook it. So, having one of the better chefs in the area at my disposal, I asked him how I might improve my success with this most basic of staples.

His first piece of advice was to make my own sauce, but that takes a lot of time. So I'll do that, and then store it in jars for later use, but I didn't have the chance to do that last night. His next mainframe point was that the water should be salty. As in salty as shit. I usually put a few pinches of salt in the water. No. Tablespoons - multiple - is the answer. Think "brine". Next is that 95% of pasta is ruined by overcooking. More on this later.

The sauce needs to be cooked in a pot, and the pot should be reasonably large. More on this later as well. Start by heating some oil in said pot, and then adding a generous amount of fresh minced garlic. He likes garlic, but not a crazy amount. The heat should be low at this point, otherwise the garlic will caramelize prematurely. When the garlic starts to cook, add in your sauce (if you are making your sauce, this is where you start doing so). Again, low heat. Stir often and season to suit. Seasoning during cooking is better than seasoning all at once at the end. Fresh oregano is great, but I'm a philistine I guess. We are trying to make a nice dinner here, not open a noodle shop.

If you are doing a protein, do that while the sauce is going. For the record, I used Whole Foods Classic Tomato Sauce. Anyhow, I made chicken, which I do well. Heat oil, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, add chicken breasts. I prefer them not too thick - filets, but not the thin ones for scallopini. Anyway, after the flip, tent the pan with foil. Trust me on this. Again, heat is pretty low.

Now for the pasta. The water is at a FULL ROLLING boil when the pasta goes in. Cook it until it's bendy but still firm in the middle. Then, using a pasta scoop, scoop the pasta into the sauce pot. The final two or three minutes of cooking is done with sauce and pasta together. The sauce will bind to the pasta, which is when you scoop in a little of the water you cooked the pasta in. Remember that this water is SALTY so having your shit a little under-salted at this point is a good thing. You want the sauce to remain liquid but not soupy, so be measured in how you add water.

You can add the protein to the pot, or you can serve it on top, it's up to you. I chunk it and mix it in. Last step is to add fresh grated cheese. I used aged manchego last night, but you just want something along the hard, salty lines.

This is probably basic as shit for anyone who actually knows how to cook, but let me tell you, the shit was FANTASTIC. Like, I couldn't believe I'd cooked it. Total sucess. Nice.

Before all this, I'd done my first strength training of the off season. It's been a long time since I've had real pronounced delayed onset muscle soreness. I don't love the gym, and though my age qualifies me for the sequel to The Expendables, my body's proclivity to adapt to any stress by becoming ever more stick like means that I don't get much positive reinforcement from checking out how jacked I am. Nonetheless, I'm committed to this. It's happening.


Catherine said...

You need this book:

The Classic Pasta Cookbook by Giuliano Hazan

Jim said...

I pity you people who grew up in a family that didn't have any Italian women in it. Seriously.


For the record: I make my own, I don't burn the garlic, I usually use fresh herbs out of the flowerpot garden, brown the meat then simmer it with some juices in the sauce, cook the pasta al dente with a shit ton of salt - and a tablespoon or two of olive oil - then serve it with a mixture of Romano cheese and parmesan only if it can be ground fresh since the store ground stuff is flavorless. Do your marinara with some good quality Eye Tie sausage browned, then simmered in the sauce for an hour, and don't forget to let a tablespoon of renderings drip into the sauce. [makes funny Italian finger kissing gesture].

Other tips - splash 25% of your sauce into the pasta in the bowl and swill it around to coat it, then top the pasta with sauce when served. Keeps it from sticking together. *NEVER* rinse the pasta under water, it removes tasty starch and salt. Skinnier pasta is tastier than thick stuff because it has more surface area to hold sauce.

Other good sauce combos - lightly browned garlic, tea- to tablespoon of crushed red pepper, sea salt, black pepper, cheese on top when served (al Diavolo). With two cups of basil and a bunch of olive oil in a simple red sauce (red pesto). Like you did, but with crushed red pepper and 1-2 pepperoncini minced then sauteed. I have easily 100 other ways of knocking out sauces - white, clam, marinara, primavera... you name it. Pasta recipes to an Italian family are like snow to eskimos.

And yes, I stepped up my game this year. I've got three quart cases of homemade sauce sitting at an undisclosed location. It tastes magnificent beyond compare. The wife has sworn we will not go back to store bought because no matter how nice you dress it up, you still can't take it home to momma. Like The Jesus, you do not f*** with The Pasta.

Shoot, even Scots/Irish dad got into the swing of things. It's funny, until I met people without Italians in the family, I thought my family's borderline obsession with pasta and sauces was how everybody lived. Sadly, it is not.

Chuck Wagon said...

Catherine - Does it have lots of pretty pictures? I'm good with pictures.

Jim - what can I say? Respect. But what I lack in Italian-ness I somewhat make up for in random ass German food. The problem of course being that I can critique the crap out of German cooking but German boys DON'T F-ING COOK!!!So how to actually make any of this stuff? Who knows? I know that proper sauerbraten is braised for about 36 hours, and that anything is improved by butter and/or salt, and improved more with more butter and/or salt. But saying I've got skeels in German food (and not even the cooking of which) is a little like saying "yeah, I've never ridden a full suspension 29er, but I used to have a pretty cool BMX bike when I was a kid."

But the general point being that in about a 5 minute conversation I went from cooking what must honestly be referred to as seriously deficient speaghetti and red gravy to making something that, if I'd ordered it in a restaurant, would have enticed me to go BACK to that restaurant to eat it again. Talk about instant gratification!

Jim said...

Good point.

As for Sauerbraten... It is to Germans as Kimchi is to Koreans. I do not know anybody who is not actually German who can make a decent Sauerbraten (or a decent spaetzle, for that matter) just as I do not know any non-Korean who can make decent kimchi, try as they might. Just can't be done.

Catherine said...

Yes, there are lots of good pictures. He also has a 30 min pasta book out, which looks interesting. However, for the less stew-like sauces (i.e., not Bolognese), I don't see why pasta needs to take much more than 30min anyway.

Jack Bishop also has some good vegetarian cookbooks featuring fairly classic pasta dishes.

I recently learned how to perfect pasta cacio e pepe (sauce of pecorino romano cheese, butter and black pepper) by watching Anthony Bourdain visit Rome. The trick is in using more of the pasta water. Heaven.