Friday, March 15, 2013

Pasta Rant

I was going to save my pasta rant for a few weeks down the line, but the February [2014] "Pasta" edition of Bon Appetite forced my hand. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful recipes, but I hoping you keep the pasta component to less than a third of the plate. Among the recipes was the sidebar "Four Steps to Pasta Paradiso".

    Here is what they suggest:
  • The more water, the better.
  • Don’t skimp on the salt.
  • Cook "to the tooth".
  • Put the Pasta water to work

To which I reply: Hogwash! Hogwash! Hogwash! Good idea.

The four steps were from an interview with restaurant chef in New York. Now, I’m not going to name the chef because I hold no grudge against the chef. These rules are common culinary school wisdom, but sometimes there is no wisdom in common. It does illustrate the difference between restaurant / food service and home cooking; what you learn in culinary school is not always applicable in the kitchen. What you watch on testosterone laden chefs on food programing is to your mind what T.V. dinners are to your body.

First - Use enough water to keep the pasta moving

The article recommends six quarts per pound of pasta. You can get by on half that. You only need enough water to keep the water boiling and the pasta moving. Use less energy by heating less water.

Six quarts of water is twelve pounds – because a pint’s a pound the world around. Twelve pounds of boiling water, plus the pound of pasta, plus the weight of the pot, makes an awkward and dangerous trip across the kitchen from the stove to the sink.It takes a lot of energy and time to boil six quarts of water.

Six quarts makes sense in a restaurant where the pot is always on the boil and the pasta water is reused. Restaurants also use those quarter pot strainers, so they are not picking up a pot of boiling water to walk it across a crowded kitchen. They may add more water as the night wears on, but if they didn’t begin with a lot of water the pasta water would end up like wall paper paste at the end of service.

    For the home cook, filling a 3-quart pot three-quarters full should be enough to cook a pound of pasta.
  • Heat the water on high until you have a rolling boil, a lid on the pot while the water is heating will save energy and time.
  • When the water is boiling, put the pasta in.
  • Stir the pot to separate the pasta. Make sure you stir along the bottom to be sure no pasta sticks to the pot.
  • When the pasta returns to a boil, reduce the heat enough to keep the pasta moving but does not boil over.

It is important that the water is brought up to boil as soon as possible and remains at a boil. If pasta is cooked at a simmer it will become gummy. It is the boiling temperature that firms up the pasta.

Some claim that the extra water keeps the pot from boiling over; I don’t find it to be true. That little ceramic disk you place in the pot, doesn't work, it will boil over. A tablespoon of olive oil in the water only makes a mess, it will still boil over. You just have to pay attention. You can do that for ten minutes.

Some pasta, like sobo noodles, are going to boil over as soon as you look away, no matter what you do. You have to watch them.

Some would have you put the lid on the pot – or partially covered - while the pasta is cooking. Don't do it. That is a sure way to have the pot boil over. You have to fiddle with the heat so much that the pasta will be cooked before you find the heat to cook it. Once the pasta goes in, leave the lid off so that you can give it the occasional stir and check its progress.

Second - Watch your salt

The article suggests one quarter cup of salt per six quarts of water per pound of pasta. That is too much, far too much. I will go even further, I am a renegade on salt – sometimes I don’t even salt the pasta water! Dum-dum-dah!

    Here are my quick and easy guidelines:
  • Lightly dressed pasta (such as olive oil, garlic & broccoli), or pasta that you put the sauce on top (such as spaghetti sauce) or large pastas (such as mostaccioli, which you should never make because it never cooks right and should be dammed to bad banquets) should be cooked in salted water. One or two tablespoons of salt should be more than enough.
  • Pastas that are going to be cooked further (such as noodles in casseroles or mac & cheese) can be cooked without salt. Pastas that are going into a pan sauce should never be salted, it throws off the taste of the sauce.

Now before I get all the Italian nonna’s coming after me with their upraised wooden spoons, there is good reasoning behind this. Pasta, like potatoes, are a salt sink; it sucks up all the salt around it. It makes whatever you put it in taste less salty. It cannot do this if it is loaded with salt. If you make a beautiful pan sauce, you don’t want ruin it with over salted pasta. I find it remarkable that the same cooks that lecture on using unsalted butter allow over-salted pasta.

Another reason is that plants LOVE pasta water. Do not salt the pasta water you use on plants - you kill your plants. If your houseplant soil is dry and hard, add cooled pasta water. There is a certain circle-of-life thingy to feeding your basil plant pasta water.

    Three caveats, for using pasta water on plants:
  1. Again, salted water will kill your plants.
  2. Hot pasta water will also kill your plants. Let it cool.
  3. If you leave it in the too long in the watering can – say about three days – it begins to smell like old socks. The plants will love it but you will wonder where you left your gym bag.

Third - Al dente is overrated

Someday I am going to catch this Al and pull his dentes out. Frankly, I am tired of crunching through the pasta special.

"Waiter, this pasta is undercooked."

"It is served 'al dente'."

"This is served 'undercooked'. I just chipped a tooth."

Let me explain al dente. Fresh, homemade pasta cooks in the blink of an eye. If you let it go even a few seconds too long and it is mush. You have to cook fresh pasta al dente, otherwise it is not pasta, it is paste.

The hard, durum wheat pasta you get out of a box is more forgiving. You have a few minutes between a crunchy center and mush. The time it takes pasta to cook depends upon the size of the pasta, the hardness of the wheat, the hardness of the water, if the water maintains a boil, and how long the box stayed on the shelf.

Let’s say that the recommended cooking time for the pasta is ten minutes. It may actually be less or it may be more. The first six minutes or so the pasta is sticky with a crunchy center. Then then pasta gets gummy, but the center is still hard. The pasta then firms up. A minute or two later the pasta softens. Keep cooking and the pasta turns to mush.

There is only one way to check pasta, bite into it. Do not toss it against the wall to see if it sticks. Do not take it into your hand to twist it. Do not run it under cold water. None of these work and they only make a mess. Remove one piece and bite into it. It should be firm all the way through. If the outside is gummy or the center is crunchy, spit it out and check again in a minute or two. If the outside is firm but the center is chewy (not hard), this is 'al dente'; drain the pasta to be cooked further in a casserole or pan sauce because at this point, the pasta will still absorb sauce. If the outside is softening, but the center is still firm, drain and lightly dress; at this point the sauce will not be absorbed much, so top the pasta with sauce at the table. If let the pasta goes too long and is mush, throw it out; you can't save it..

Fourth - Put the pasta water to work

Let’s talk about draining the pasta. If the pasta is going into a casserole, use a heat-proof measuring cup to remove some pasta water and set it aside before you drain the pasta. Use a colander. If you have more prep to do on the casserole before you can add the pasta, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. If it sits for a minutes it will be fine. For anything thee minutes, use butter or olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking together.

If the pasta is going from the pasta water to a cooking pan sauce in the skillet next to it, use a spider, slotted spoon or mesh strainer to lift the pasta out of the pasta water to the skillet. Use the pasta water as need to loosen the sauce as needed.

If the pasta is lightly dressed, place the pasta bowl in the sink. (What, you don’t have a pasta bowl? Get one.) Place the colander in the bowl. Drain the pasta, using the water to heat the bowl. Save some of the pasta water in a heat-proof measuring cup to loosen the sauce, as needed.

And finally - We have already talked about using the cooled pasta water for your plants. If you have been following along, the big, lovely pot of pasta water sitting on the stove should be unsalted. All the salted pasta water went down the drain. Taste it before you feed it to your plants, just to be sure, and that whole circle-of-life thingy will work for you.

Let's put it all together

  1. Use enough water to keep the pasta moving.
  2. Use salt sparingly, or not at all, according to what you cook.
  3. Cook the pasta according to how it is going to be served. Cook al dente if it is going to be cooked further.
  4. Pasta water is a wonderous thing. Set some aside to loosen up dry sauces. Save the unsalted water to cool and use on your houseplants.

Pasta is easy. Comedy is hard.

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