Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ask Dr. Pasta

Dear Dr. Pasta,

 My husband is driving me crazy.  Whenever he makes pasta for our family and friends, he insists that  everybody be seated at the table before he puts the dry pasta into the boiling water.  I hate this but he refuses to even discuss it.  He said to consult with you.  What is going on here?

Sandra S, Spokane, WA

Dear Sandra,

I hate to say it, but your husband is right.  There’s nothing worse than serving pasta that has sat around getting cold and sticking together.  (OK, I guess there are worse things, like Spaghetti-Os, but you get my point.)  Ideally, the pasta is strained the moment it’s done (never rinsed!), tossed quickly with a little extra virgin olive oil, and plated within a minute or two.  Say your kids are slow getting to the table and spoil this small act of perfection:  that could cause intense family resentment.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

Can I store pasta in bulk?  Or will it go bad?

Chuck M, LaCrosse, KS

Dear Chuck,

Yes, you can store pasta, in a dry place.  (This doesn’t mean you should buy it at Costco though.)  It won’t go bad unless it’s that fancy colored pasta, which often has vegetable matter in it.  That stuff will start to break down and crumble, and turns mushy when boiled.  It’s safe to eat, but who would want to? 

The only other risk you run is insect infestation.  This happened to me once.  The pasta was perciatelli, which is tubular like macaroni but long like spaghetti, and the insects were weevils.  They burrowed right in there.  I went ahead and ate it (dozens of boxes), to take my revenge.  It tasted fine and, as 80% of the world’s population eats insects, I wasn’t worried about my health.  Still, it was a bit gnarly.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

Everybody knows that farfalle means “bow tie” in Italian, but my friend insists it means “butterfly.”  Will you set him straight?

Scott B, Jersey City, NJ

Dear Scott,

The paucity of your research skills is matched only by your ignorance.  Can a thousand menus and waiters be wrong?  Yes, they can.  Technically “farfalle” means “butterflies” (the singular is “farfalla”) but your friend is basically right, and deserves an apology.  I’ve been there:  I was at a fancy restaurant and got into the same argument with a friend of Italian descent and his dad, and they tried to use their Italian heritage as evidence.  I wasn’t having it, so they appealed to the waiter, who agreed with them that “farfalle” means bow tie.  I told the waiter to go ask the cook.  The waiter came back and said, “Yep, I was right, the cook says it means ‘butterfy’!”  I don’t know if he was trying to be funny or what.

Why would a great nation name a great pasta after the most useless clothing accessory in existence?  A bow tie technically does meet the requirement of formal attire, but makes the wearer look like a damn clown.  Only the Daniel Craig James Bond can wear a bow tie and still look cool, and that’s only because, when asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred, he replies, “Do I look like I give a damn?”  That and because he beat a guy to death in a stairwell.  But I digress.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

 I recently moved to the Bay Area from Chicago and have found that my favorite metaphor for a person being lame—“That's like putting ketchup on a hot dog!”—doesn’t work around here.  Nobody here seems to appreciate a properly dressed hot dog.  But these same people all seem to be foodies, and are nearly fascist about their pasta.  Is there a pasta-related metaphor I can substitute for “ketchup on a hot dog”?

Mike T, Alameda, CA

Dear Mike,

 Yes.  You can say, “That’s like breaking pasta in half before boiling it!”

Dear Dr. Pasta,

I’m trying to become a better cook, but I’m not ready to make my own noodles, slave over complicated sauces, etc.  What’s the best way to improve my pasta dishes?

Emily W, San Antonio, TX

Dear Emily,

If you’re shaking granulated parmesan on your pasta from a green cardboard or plastic canister, stop.  (The white can labeled “Italian topping” is even worse—it’s parmesan stretched with rice flour to increase profit margins.)  Or, if you’re buying little tubs of pre-shredded parmesan, cut that out.  Use a hard block of parmesan, and grate it with a zester.  Another simple trick is to buy Italian parsley, chop or tear it finely, and sprinkle that on top.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

 Two words:  pasta erotica.  Help me out here, bud.

Tom F, Brooklyn, NY

I can only imagine you’re referring to the pasta equivalent of “bike porn,” that being glossy bike catalogs designed to titillate.  (If I've misunderstood what you mean by "pasta erotica," please don’t write back and correct me ... I don’t want to know.)

The most enticing pasta writing I’ve come across in recent years is this article by Bill Buford in “The New Yorker,” chronicling part of his pasta-making apprenticeship  under the chef Mario Batali.  Here’s an excerpt: 
Mark, having cooked up a large quantity of linguine for its regulation six minutes and thirty seconds, emptied it into a pan of New Zealand cockle-clams, sloppily dripping lots of that starchy water on them in the process, a big wet heap of pasta on top of several dozen shellfish; he swirled the pan, gave it a little flip, swirled it again, and then left it alone so that it could cook, bubbling away, for another half minute…  Then he took a strand and tasted it.  He gave me one.  It was not what I expected.  It was no longer linguine, exactly; it had changed color and texture and become something else.  I tasted it again.  This, I thought, is the equivalent of soaking bread in gravy…  But what was the sauce?  I looked at the pan:  the cockle-clams had been all closed up a few minutes earlier, and as they cooked their shells opened, and as they opened they released the juices inside—lots of juices.  That’s what I was tasting in this strand of linguine:  an ocean pungency.  (“It’s about the sauce, not the little snot of meat in the shell,” Mario told me later.  “No one is interested in the little snot of meat!”)
Click here for the full article, or here for info about Buford’s book, “Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany.” 

By the way, the presence of fresh clams in your linguine alle vongole does not guarantee that it’s good—this can merely be a way for a mediocre restaurant to be flashy.  Check out this crazy plate I got at a restaurant in Bath:

That entree was like a train wreck.  The pasta was broken up into short pieces; it was like Noodle Roni to begin with; half the clam shells were empty (!); and worst of all, every third or fourth bite had tiny shards of what must have been broken clam shell.  Given the incompetence of this kitchen, I’d have been better off with “little snots of meat” from a can.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

My cousin’s husband is a really snooty foody.  Can you give me a little-known-fact to one-up him with?

Julie R, San Diego, CA

Dear Julie,

As Buford (see above) has pointed out, in Italy the words “ravioli” and “tortelli” have always been used interchangeably, but technically “ravioli” are the filling and “tortelli” the pasta casing.  (Tortellini, meanwhile, is just little tortelli.)

Dear Dr. Pasta,

Help!   My wife wants our family to eat whole wheat pasta.  What can I do?

Mark A, Grand Junction, CO

Dear Mark,

That’s rough.  From the standpoint of health, it’s hard to knock whole wheat, but of course whole wheat pasta is just wrong.  There are three tacks you could take.  One, you could reclassify pasta and call it a treat instead of a staple, and then cast whole wheat pasta as a poor substitute in the tradition of Hydrox cookies (vs. Oreos), soy cheese, skim milk, and turkey dogs.  Or, you could go along with her and hope she stumbles upon a “fake” whole-wheat pasta like Barilla’s so-called “Whole-Grain” pasta, which is a blend of whole wheat and refined flour.  It’s not as bad.  Your third option is to ask for wheat germ on the side.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

There’s all this hoopla about homemade pasta or this or that premium pasta brand ... but isn’t it the sauce that really matters?

Laura D, Council Bluff, IA

Dear Laura,

It’s true that it’s harder to find a good sauce than a good pasta.  Many a grocery store will carry top-notch De Cecco pasta, or at least Barilla, but the run-of-the-mill jarred sauce (Prego, Ragu) isn’t up to snuff.  But that doesn’t mean the pasta isn’t important. 

One of the most disappointing pastas of my life was at Kuleto’s in San Francisco.  The sauce was incredible … I don’t remember much about it except it had sun-dried tomatoes and was a great ungodly godlike sauce.  Delicious.  But it was served on some colored homemade pasta that was limp and soft, somehow simultaneously doughy and overcooked.  It could have been the greatest pasta dish ever but instead was the greatest disappointment.  I couldn’t have been more bewildered and let down if Natalie Portman had shown up wearing a beard.

If you’re looking for a really great sauce you can make yourself, click here.  I know it seems crazy trying to get useful information from somebody’s blog, for crying out loud, but this guy’s Bolognese recipe is actually very good.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

I hear you used to do a bit of pasta racing.  Is this true?  If so, were you any good?

Lisa S, Louisville, KY

Dear Lisa,

I must confess, as a brash young lad I did go in for some pasta racing.  (This was many years before I settled down and earned my honorary doctorate in alimentary science.)  Sure, pasta racing seems barbaric now, but those were different times.  The Gondolier, an Italian restaurant in Boulder, had all-you-can-eat spaghetti once or twice a week, and every bike racer in the area would line up for it.  As a teenager with a vermicelli build, I always ate at least five plates,  usually six, and to keep my less voracious brothers and friends from having to wait around for me I tended to eat fast.  Nobody could eat faster than I, though several pals tried. 

One night, I was just in the zone and spontaneously decided, on my sixth plate, to set the all-time record.  I powered that bad boy down using two forks, and everybody clocked me at the same time—19.9 seconds—on their matching Timex Triathlon watches.  (Yes, that kind of nerd.)  An immensely corpulent woman at the next table was outraged.  “That is completely disgusting!” she cried.  No, I didn’t have the obvious Churchillian comeback queued up, and wouldn’t have had the nerve to use it anyway.  I either clammed up completely or said something Midwestern like, “Gosh, ma’am, I’m really sorry.”

The amazing thing?  It wasn’t even a racing plate (that is, oil and garlic, which slips down the throat faster).  It was standard marinara.  So, yeah, I guess you could say I had talent.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

It has been said that pasta is a blood memory.  What do you have to say about that?

Ron M, Boston, MA

Dear Ron,

I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.  Whoever said it must have been really poetic or something.  I’m not sure what to say, but I’ll acknowledge that my love of pasta does intertwine with my memory of eating, making, and observing it.  For example, I saw an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood back in 1984 that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.  (I was a teenager, watching the show “ironically.”) In this episode, Mr. Rogers made pasta with a friend.  It was obvious that Mr. Rogers really wanted to see the pasta machine in action, but that his friend—clearly a pasta expert—had moved beyond the machine and wanted to cut his noodles by hand.  Mr. Rogers got progressively more persistent, but the friend was stubborn, and it must have been the closest Mr. Rogers ever got to kicking someone’s ass on camera. 

That Mr. Rogers episode may have inspired me to start making my own pasta, which I took up a couple years later, and the memory of the show certainly did inspire me, this past Father’s Day, to finally take the plunge and make my own hand-cut pappardelle.  I rolled out the pasta sheets, folded them over, and cut them with a big knife (kind of like making a jelly roll).  Then I had to peel apart the folded-over layers, which was a bit like unspooling Scotch tape.  It was a glorious success that, well, I shall never forget.

Dear Dr. Pasta,

 Are you some kind of elitist, or do you have a “guilty pleasure” pasta?

Angie W, Topeka, KS

Dear Angie,

I’d eat just about any pasta you could put in front of me, except maybe that Chef Boyardee beef ravioli (and that’s only for fear of mad cow disease, which—if it’s going to show up in this country—couldn’t find a better vehicle).  I’m not above Prego and Ragu (though I’ll generally sex it up with some olive oil, diced tomatoes, chicken broth, and herbs).  And I have a real soft spot for Lipton instant pasta sides.  (They’re marketed as Knorr now, but don’t be fooled.  Culturally, they’re pure Lipton.)  I first discovered this product when I did a cross-country bike tour with my wife and we needed something highly caloric and starchy that we could make on a camp stove.  To this day I’ll occasionally indulge in this trashy treat, just for old time’s sake and because it’s actually pretty yummy.  (Here I am making it for the first time, in March ’94.)

Dear Dr. Pasta,

I really want to use my knowledge of pasta as an affirmation of my self-worth.  Is there any way you can help?

Theodore B, Danbury, CT

Dear Teddy,

(You don’t mind if I call you Teddy, do you?  You seem like a Teddy.)  You might be better off becoming an expert on wine or something, but I want to help, so here’s a little quiz for you.  Match the pasta quotation with the person who uttered it.

1.  George Carlin
2.  Sophia Loren
3.  George Miller
4.  Christopher Morley
5.  Vladimir Nabokov

a.  “No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention.”
b.  “The trouble with eating Italian food is that 5 or 6 days later you’re hungry again.”
c.  “Macaroni grows in Italy.  When still small it’s called vermicelli.  That means Mike’s worms in Italian.”
d.  “Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.”
e.  “If you ate pasta and antipasto, would you still be hungry?”

Answers:  1. e; 2. d; 3. b; 4. a; 5. c. 
Note:  George Carlin is widely credited with quotation (e), but perhaps erroneously.  Should we care?

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