How To Make Bland Pasta Better

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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?

19 comments

  1. Great post, I feel like I have been to a number of dinner parties where this has been the case, that is not to say that I have not also made this same mistake. I feel like there are a lot tricks to bumping up flavor salt is definitly good, people are afraid to use alot of salt but salt enhances flavor. From working in high end northern italian restaurants the chef used to add salty capone stock, or a dab of anchovie past to enhance and add complexity to flavor.

    Bill – http://www.ilsvont.com – find out where celebrities eat in NYC

  2. And after the olive oil (which is an absolute must in my kitchen), maybe, just maybe, before you pick up the knitting needles you could try the merest hint (like the vermouth in a dry martini) of Balsamic vinegar.

    Thank you for redeeming the virtues of salt!

  3. Never mind the pasta, what about the Israeli-Arab conflict and Mr. Chiarello’s negative involvement?

    Hope to get an answer ( I don’t like open-end issues). I’m from the Israeli side: should I stop eating Mr. Chiarello’s bland pasta in protest? Will this solve the conflict? Should I skip the basil?

  4. Our favorite way to eat pasta these days is mixed with a goodly amount of roughly chopped kale that has been sauteed in olive oil and garlic, then mixed with a horribly generous amount of grated guyere and black pepper. This is baked for about 20 minutes, and gone in about ten. Incredible.

    Cheers!

  5. You might even try other cheeses, like Gorgonzola, if the ingredients agree with that. Obviously you need a new take on the recipe, which might be altered by many of the things you used, and when tasted should be a bit stronger than what you’d eat alone, since it is about to waltz with pasta, yes?

  6. Good tips AG – one thing that sort of combines a couple of your ideas, and that I have found extremely useful to have on hand, is a bottle of olive oil (extra virgin) with a handful or so of red pepper flakes in it. You shake it up very well and after awhile the oil will take on a definite reddish hue – the oil is quite flavorful with enough heat to pack a punch (it’s not too strong, depending on the amount of pepper flakes you use) – it really jazzes simple pasta up – and it is EXCELLENT on 4-cheese pasta.

  7. So what about this situation? I was at a generally very fine Italian restaurant in Seattle with a big group. Most of the meal was excellent, but the Angel Hair Aglio Olio desperately needed salt. And there was no salt on the table, or any of the others in the restaurant. I hated to ask, because obviously they are making a point of asserting that their food is properly seasoned, but in this case it wasn’t. I think if it was just me and one or two folks I would have brought mentioned it, but I didn’t want to cause a fuss with a larger group. Oh well.

    Michael Natkin

    vegfoodie@gmail.com

    The Vegetarian Foodie

  8. If salt & parm aren’t enough, (before taking up the yarn arts) try the opposite direction and add a squeeze of lemon (or other acid) – it’ll take the dish to a whole new level.

  9. Mmm… your corn and basil creation looks tempting. I love cooking my pasta in the sauce – sometimes just for the last few minutes, and sometimes for the whole cooking time. Particularly when I have a spicy sauce I notice that the noodles imbibe the flavor and the whole dish is just delicious.

  10. I love to add a lot a lot of grate Parmesan. Yummy. I think you are right to taste again before adding addition salt or parmesan so that you would not add to much . :)

  11. Enjoyed the post. I’m pretty good at non-bland pasta, but I picked up a few thoughts here. One thing, though — the method you describe means that you’ve had a meal by the time the guests arrive. That, to me, is one of the great conundrums of having dinner parties. Taste, adjust seasonings, taste, adjust seasonings, taste … and you’re done! :)

  12. More people would cook if they knew how to save a

    dish gone wrong or bland in this case.

    Good on ya for sharing, truffle oil at the

    last moment can also do wonders.

  13. Adam, Try some aromatics in the pasta water (bay works really well), a cup or so of GOOD stock (which one depends on the recipe), a knob of butter to the hot pasta (not the sauce, which is do as well, but thats a very “restauranty” thing) and the quality of ingredients. wait! Don’t hang up! I don’t just mean fresh and good from a good purveyor, but ones that are fresh and good AND have been used repeatedly in the recipe. thing is some ingredients start out great, cook well and are still good, and by the time we’ve cooked the living crap out of them and we’re ready to eat, they’re gone, flavor-wise. This can only be ascertained through milage with the recipes and the ingredients and their suppliers. Finally I’m a fan of the sauce being the sauce and not adding a bunch of stuff to it at the end which just makes it more palatable and less boring, but not necessarily better. Considering that I use pure olive oil as a pasta topper not extra virgin. It’s lighter on the palate, lighter in taste so it won’t overpower the sauce you just slaved over, but still gives that sexy wet glisten to final dish.

  14. Adam, Try some aromatics in the pasta water (bay works really well), a cup or so of GOOD stock (which one depends on the recipe), a small (1/2 to 1 tbl) knob of butter to the hot pasta (not the sauce, which I do as well, but thats a very “restauranty” thing) and the quality of ingredients. wait! Don’t hang up! I don’t just mean fresh and good from a good purveyor, but ones that are fresh and good AND have been used repeatedly in the recipe. thing is some ingredients start out great, cook well and are still good, and by the time we’ve cooked the living crap out of them and we’re ready to eat, they’re gone, flavor-wise. This can only be ascertained through milage with the recipes and the ingredients and their suppliers. Finally I’m a fan of the sauce being the sauce and not adding a bunch of stuff to it at the end which just makes it more palatable and less boring, but not necessarily better. Considering that I use pure olive oil as a pasta topper not extra virgin. It’s lighter on the palate, lighter in taste so it won’t overpower the sauce you just slaved over, but still gives that sexy wet glisten to final dish.

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