How To Make Bland Pasta Better


The pasta you see above may call to you and cause you to eat your computer screen, but don’t be fooled. Before I put that pasta through Amateur Gourmet Pasta Rehab, it was a bland, boring mess. Two ingredients came from the farmer’s market: fresh corn and basil. The corn, as I should’ve guessed this time of year, wasn’t very sweet (even though it was advertised as sweet corn). The recipe (which you can read here) came from Michael Chiarello who is that suave-looking guy on the Food Network. I don’t blame him for this pasta being bland, but–strangely enough–I do blame him for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Go figure.

So I’ve had this experience before: the pasta’s in the pot boiling away (in properly salted water) and you’re making the sauce and you taste the sauce and it tastes pretty excellent and then you take the pasta out just before it’s done to finish cooking in the sauce (an essential step, I think, so the pasta and sauce are united as one) and then once you’ve turned the heat up and let the liquid all evaporate (when the pasta and sauce are united as one, you should be able to drag a wooden spoon across the bottom of the saute pan and just see the bottom of the pan) you taste and it’s pretty bland. That’s what happened with this pasta. Some might’ve fallen on their knees and screamed out, “Why!! Why, God, why!?” and then broke out into “Why God Why” from Miss Saigon but not me. Here’s what you do to make bland pasta better:

1. Add salt. Well, duh. But this is a tricky step. At this point, there should already be salt in the pasta (from the cooking water) and in the sauce itself because, before you added the pasta, you properly salted it. So if you add too much salt here, there’s no going back. So a light sprinkling, a stir and taste: better? Don’t overdo it, especially if you’re going to add cheese.

2. Grate lots of Parmesan or Pecorino into a bowl. I say into a bowl because if you do it directly over the pasta, it’ll quickly melt and you’ll forget how much you added. So I grate a big bowl full of cheese and then scatter the cheese over the pasta while it’s still in the pan, stir it through and taste. That’s key for pasta rehab: taste taste taste after each step! How does it taste now with the cheese? Less bland? Need more salt? After steps 1 and 2, salinity should not be an issue. The rest of the steps will just help with bumping up the flavor.

3. Grind some pepper over it.

4. Sprinkle some red pepper flakes over it.

5. Give it a drizzle of olive oil. Yes, that last step may seem strange but it’s a VERY Italian thing to do as I’ve seen Mario do it on TV, I’ve read Marcella Hazan’s instructions to do that and then, of course, Dominic DeMarco does it to the pizza at Di Fara. The cold olive oil provides an uncooked fruity olive oil finish to what should be, by now, a very delicious pasta.

Stir that through and taste again. How did we do? Use any of the ingredients in steps 1 through 5 to fix whatever problems your pasta has. If it still tastes bland, you must’ve done something really wrong. Maybe pasta isn’t your thing. Maybe you should take up knitting?

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