Do better ingredients make a difference?

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I make Cavatappi with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Cannellini Beans on a very regular basis. (Click here for the recipe). It’s a great pasta dish because the sun-dried tomatoes make it taste bright and summery and the beans make it hardy (hearty? how do you spell that?) and substantial. Everyone loves it and plus you get to dump a ton of cheese on top, which makes everyone love it even more.

Recently, I was at Dean & Deluca in SoHo browsing around when I decided I was going to make my Cavatappi for dinner. I’d just grab the standard ingredients–the garlic, the cavatappi, the sun-dried tomatoes and the beans–shoot home on the subway and make it. But this being Dean & Deluca, it wasn’t quite that simple: the sun-dried tomatoes were behind the glass case, they were imported, and a man had to scoop them into a container for me. The beans, too, were imported as you can see in the above photo. And the pasta itself wasn’t DeCecco, it was real dried Italian cavatappi that I’d actually purchased at the Italian store in the Chelsea market a few days earlier.

So this version of Cavatappi undoubtedly had superior ingredients. Did that yield a superior result?

The answer is pretty much: yes. It’s almost taken for granted in the chef community that better ingredients make better food, but I hadn’t really put that to the test at home. Yet these sun-dried tomatoes were electric, they were so tangy and sweet. The beans had more depth and tasted more convincingly Italian (ok, that’s a stretch–but they were certainly more noticeable than my normal canned beans). And the pasta was very good though, I guess, not mind-blowingly different.

So, basically, the good sun-dried tomatoes made my Cavatappi a better Cavatappi. Are they essential? Absolutely not. It’s just good to confirm that better ingredients can make for better food.

My Burnt Foot

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Picture it: my kitchen, last Thursday. I’m standing at the stove attempting to make Colman Andrews’ recipe for Rigatoni with Chickpeas and Anchovies from Nancy Silverton’s “A Twist of the Wrist” and I have a giant vat of water boiling for the pasta. The sauce is simple: you just take 12 anchovies, mash them up with salt, and then add one chopped up celery stalk and the liquid from a can of chickpeas. Only after opening the can and pouring the liquid in do I realize that somehow, quite strangely, I’d purchased kidney beans–even though I recall staring at a shelf of chickpeas at the store–and now the sauce is ruined.

Luckily, I have chickpeas in my cabinet (I’d forgotten I had them) and 12 more anchovies and another celery stalk so I start the process over from scratch. I mash the anchovies with salt, I add the celery and the chickpea liquid and then, when the water’s boiling, I add salt and half a box of rigatoni to the pot.

For the past 365 days, I’d been using Diana’s pot to make pasta. It’s the perfect size: big enough to let the pasta move around, small enough to maneuver easily. But when she moved out she took the pot with her. So all I have now is a small pot, too small for good pasta, and a giant stock pot. That’s what I’m using this night: the giant stock pot. It’s enormous, towering on the back of my stove, shaking with activity as the pasta cooks.

Here’s where I’m an idiot. Colman Andrews says to drain the pasta in the sink and to add the pasta back to the pot to toss with the anchovies, chickpea water, chickpeas, and Parmesan cheese. I like the idea of tossing all this around in the empty pot: the residual heat will cook everything a bit, bring it all together.

So I place a strainer in the sink and when the pasta’s done I lift my giant stock pot off the stove and move it to the sink. I tilt it away from me, so the boiling water tips out ino the sink, only the pot is so heavy that the motion causes me to lose my grip a bit and I proceed to pour scalding hot water–bubbling, bursting, brusing water–all over my foot.

My sock soaks up with the heat and I don’t even yell out. I do a sharp intake of breath and put the pot on the floor as I pull off my sock. Then I hop around and yelp: “Ow! Ow! Ow!”

I go to the couch and stare at my foot and there’s not much to see. But it burns like Anne Coulter’s vision for my life after death; and a few days later it looks like this. [WARNING: Do NOT show this picture to small children, bunnies, kittens, or anything else sweet and innocent and in danger of corruption–it will destroy their faith in humanity.] I am proud to say: this is my worst kitchen injury. Isn’t it cool?

But you must be wondering: how was the pasta? Was it worth it? Well this is what it looked like in the pot when I was ready to mix it all together, like Colman suggested:

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And here’s the finished bowl, garnished with celery leaves:

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What did I think? Was it worth all the stress? Do I need a podiatrist and/or a pedicurist? The answer: it was ok. I didn’t love it, but granted this pasta would have to be pretty fantastic to overcome the emotional strife it caused me. I liked the loud presence of the anchovies, but I longed for the garlic that would’ve made this “dressing” more Caesar-like. If I did it again, I’d have mashed up garlic with anchovies at the beginning.

But chances are, I won’t be doing this again: I’m suffering from Post Traumatic Pasta Disorder. Maybe, after years of therapy, I’ll be ready to make pasta again. If you see me cooking in rubber boots from now on, though, you’ll understand why.

How To Make Broccoli and Cauliflower Bad For You (and utterly delicious)

This is a recipe from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, a cookbook I’ve long dismissed as too complex, too fussy, too–well–not me. Flipping through it now, the recipes are long-winded, they go on for pages, and the pictures are too few and far between. And yet this is a cookbook that has something to say–I can’t deny that–and every now and then I pick it up and hope that I may stumble across something that will win me over. Tonight was such a night.

It’s a super simple Zuni recipe (“Pasta with Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower”), a recipe that spans only two pages, and yet now I will attempt to reduce it to just a few short paragraphs.

1. Take cauliflower and broccoli and slice it into 1/8th-inch slices (about as much as you think can fit in your saute pan). Heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in the pan on medium heat and then add the cauliflower and broccoli, leaving behind the stray bits for later:

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Cook until the cauliflower and broccoli are brown on the edges. Don’t move them around!!

2. Once browned, add salt (a light sprinkling) and more oil (this is why it’s not so healthy, I added a lot of oil) and then the rest of the cauliflower bits from the board. Then add 1 Tbs capers and toss around. Then let cook until the edges begin to brown again.

3. Drop 1 pound (or so) of penne or fussili (or any pasta, really) into a pot of boiling salted water. Try to time it so the pasta will be done when the sauce is done.

4. When the broccoli and cauliflower has shrunken by 1/3rd, reduce the heat, add more oil, and then add chopped anchovy (6 filets), chopped garlic (six cloves), 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, and 4 to 8 pinches red chili flakes. This is a highly unusual step–adding the garlic and flavorings AFTER the vegetables have cooked–but it makes the flavors way more pungent. Stir them around and cook for a few more minutes.

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5. Taste! Is it tasty? Judy Rodgers says, “Every flavor should be clamoring for dominance.” (She also has you add olives and toasted bread crumbs, but I didn’t have any on hand).

6. When the pasta is done, toss it with the sauce and look:

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You’ve made broccoli and cauliflower oily, unhealthy and terrifically delicious! It’s a great pasta dish. You can add cheese if you want, but I didn’t have any. And so, the Zuni Cafe cookbook gets a pat on the back tonight. Well done, Zuni. Well done.

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?

Fun with Feta

Oh commenters, you complete me. I did a post last week called Summer Food where I asked you, my readers, what foods really capture the summer season. The responses were great, but one stuck out in my head as I made my way to the grocery store this weekend. That was KatyBelle’s. She said, “Anything vaguely Mediteranian or involving Feta cheese basically” and went on to praise watermelon with Feta and a Greek pasta salad also with feta. Well look what I made this weekend:

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That’s hummus on the left–you blitz chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper in the food processor (the recipe’s on Epicurious: the trick is to reserve the chickpea liquid and then to add it at the end until the hummus is smooth and creamy (which, come to think of it, was another tip from a reader from the last time I made hummus))–and, on the right, watermelon and feta salad. I just bought a watermelon already cut up and cut smaller it into nice squares. I tossed it with olive oil, salt, pepper, some slivers of onion and, of course, Feta. It tasted great and only now do I realize what it’s missing: mint. I made it with mint once before and that was over the top.

The next day I put the Feta to more good use (do you prefer it when I capitalize or leave uncapitalized “feta” ?) when I improvised this pasta salad:

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It’s sort of based on a Mario Batali dish I made last year, only this time I used cherry tomatoes and I used penne. Essentially, you chop up some garlic and throw it in a bowl with lots of olive oil, a sprinkling of salt, and pepper and, if you’d like, some red chile flakes. Then you take a carton of cherry tomatoes (or grape tomatoes) cut them in half and throw them in with everything else. I added a splash of red wine vinegar and I added even more later: do it to taste. You also add some chopped up some parsley but you could use basil or any other herb you enjoy. And that’s basically it. You cook the pasta until just al dente then drain and add to this bowl. And then, of course, you top it with Feta. A simple, easy, and terrific summer dinner. Thanks KatyBelle! You and Feta are my new best friends.