Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Siren's Call

Despite great pain, disfigurement, inconvenience and emotional trauma caused thereby, I am looking forward to pulling out my mandolin again. However, this time it will be preceded by the purchase and donning of a cut-resistant glove, widely available at cooking supply stores and on Amazon.

Why? Because my wife can tolerate parmesan cheese, this recipe for healthy fettucini alfredo with zucchini calls for one, texture and shape really do make a difference in a dish like this, and a mandolin is the easiest way to julienne vegetables until you've really honed your knife skills.

Even if the idea of a healthy vegetarian dinner does not appeal to you, take a look at the recipe. Ellie uses some techniques that will come in handy for other dishes.

First, note that she reserves some pasta water before draining the pasta. This starchy water is used to thin the pasta sauce to desired consistency if it gets too thick. Unlike plain water, it adds a subtle "presence" to the sauce that is considered desirable. You don't want to over-do this, but a light touch will improve your pasta sauces. Also the starchy water adds a taste to the sauce that is already in the pasta, which "brings the elements on the plate together as one", as some cooks like to say. In other words, common ingredients in discrete components of a dish (like, pasta and sauce) make them taste like they belong together. All that from a cup of hot cloudy water. . .

Second, take a look at the sauce. The main components include flour, oil and milk. Look familiar? Yes, that's a simple bechamel base, put together in a slightly different order than my way. Adding a little garlic, salt and parmesan magically transforms walllpaper paste into something special. If we did this the way we already know, we'd start with the oil, add garlic and cook just a bit (so it's not raw or burned - it's not going to cook well in milk), add flour and cook enough to get rid of the bread-like taste (it's not going to cook in the milk either), and then add milk. Then the base is heated and thickened (heat can be increased a bit at this point). The cheese only needs to melt, not cook, so it can be added late in the process. If the sauce gets a little too thick, use that reserved pasta water (sparingly). Save salt for last, as the cheese can be pretty salty on its own and it will be hard to judge saltiness until the pasta water has been added.

While we are talking about pasta, here are a couple of other tips:
1. Get the water boiling before you do anything else. It takes the water a long time to heat up and you won't have that nice starchy water until you're done.
2. Many cooks salt the pasta water aggressively, because this is the only chance to infuse taste into the pasta. Obviously this can be skipped, especially if you're watching sodium intake, but if you do salt the water, this is yet another reason not to add salt to your sauce until the pasta water has been added to it.
3. Many people prefer their pasta "al dente", meaning firm, but not at all crunchy. One way to achieve this is to stop cooking the pasta just before it is completely finished (yes, you have to pull out a piece and try it), and then put it in the completed sauce to finish cooking. This allows the pasta to absorb sauce flavor and is another way to "bring the elements of the dish together". This is a good way to compensate if you did not salt your water, by design or accident.
4. One of the simplest ways to dress up the taste of pasta sauce is to throw a couple of tablespoons of good quality olive oil in the sauce after it is fully cooked. Using it earlier is a waste, as it breaks down in the cooking process and the effect is greatly reduced. According to recent articles, Colavita and Calumeta are among the best grocery store varieties of olive oil. I can vouch for Colavita - it gives my pasta sauces a taste, texture and shine that actually surpasses some I've had in restaurants.

Pasta sauces can be tough because of all the forbidden ingredients, but hopefully this one will get you thinking about options that taste good without triggering headaches.

No comments:

Post a Comment