Things the French Chef Never Told American Cooks About Italian Food
Consider the classic spaghetti dinner. In the eyes of most Americans, it's the ultimate in Italian food. Whether enjoyed at home or at a neighborhood restaurant, you sit down with a plate piled high with spaghetti that has been smothered in a rich tomato or meat sauce generously ladled over the top. And of course, you've gotta have a little garlic bread on the side. It's an icon, it's a staple – and it's so completely wrong!
What I want to address here is the American idea of an Italian spaghetti dinner versus a properly executed spaghetti dinner served in an authentic Italian style. It's all in the preparation and presentation.
America is the great melting pot. Within a generation of their arrival on American shores, most immigrants find their cultures being absorbed and morphed into something “American.” Nowhere is this more the case than with ethnic food.
For instance, you can go anywhere in China seeking out a dish of chop suey and you'll come away disappointed and hungry. You'll have to go to a Chinese restaurant in America for that particular “classic Chinese” preparation.
Similarly, you won't have much luck in Italy with a spaghetti dinner – at least, not the way it's prepared in America.
I've often wondered how American cooks have managed to mangle such a simple meal. And, really, I must admit I don't know when, where, why, or how the American version of an “Eye-talian” dish went wrong.
But I think maybe Julia Child had something to do with it. Or, at least, her generation of American cooks.
Fanatic legions of captivated home cooks used to literally empty grocery store shelves of ingredients for whatever Julia was cooking on TV this week. So, when she said, “This is how you cook.....” whatever, then, by golly, that was how you cooked it!
Don't misunderstand, I loved and respected Julia Child, and I'm not picking on her specifically. I mean, I am but un cuoco italiano semplice – a simple Italian cook, unqualified to tie Julia's apron strings. The chances of my kitchen being enshrined in the Smithsonian are nil. That notwithstanding, sometimes she was just plain wrong about things on the fringes of her expertise. But since she was … Julia Child, for Pete's sake, who was going to question her?
In my collection, I have a two copies of the “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook,” – the venerable “Red Plaid” cookbook – first published in 1930. The older edition I have probably dates back to the fifties. I also have an “updated” 1989 edition. In both instances, the “Red Plaid” cookbook reflects the traditional American way of preparing a spaghetti dinner.
I also have a copy of the first Italian cookbook published in the United States, “Simple Italian Cookery.” Authored by Antonia Isola, it came out in 1912, and it presents cooking a spaghetti dish in the proper Italian way. (Never mind that “Antonia Isola” was really a New Yorker named Mabel Earl McGinnis. At least she actually did live in Italy for a time and understood Italian methods.)
Now, I'm not implying that Julia Child cooked from the “Red Plaid” cookbook. What I am saying is that she was a product of her time and culture. And, although most American cooks aspired to cook like Julia, in many ways, Julia cooked like most American cooks. Again, I don't know exactly when or why American cooks started bastardizing Italian cooking methods, but by the time Julia hit the airwaves in the early '60s, the American way of cooking Italian food was the well-established kitchen standard.
I recently cringed my way through an episode of Julia's “The French Chef” in which the American culinary icon cooked up a spaghetti dinner. Loved ya, Jules, but while you were in France, ya shoulda spent a little time in Italy. After all, it was the Italians who taught the French how to cook in the first place.
And America's favorite “French Chef” cooked Italian food like an American.
First off, she puts oil in the spaghetti water. Now this is not necessarily an egregious error as long you understand why you're doing it. So many people think it has something to do with keeping the spaghetti from sticking or clumping. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Old wive's tale. Don't do it! Unless you're trying to force them together in an emulsion, oil and water simply don't mix and rather than coming anywhere near your spaghetti, oil poured into cooking water will just form an oily layer on the top of your water. Just enter “oil in pasta water” or something similar in the subject box of your browser. You get an eyeful of reasons why this old practice has long since fallen out of favor.
It can serve a purpose, however. When you add spaghetti to boiling water, the released starches increase the surface tension of the water, changing it from a rolling or bubbling boil to a foamy boil, which floods over the top of your pot and makes a mess on your stovetop. What you are doing when you add oil to boiling pasta water is reducing the surface tension of the water, thereby lessening the likelihood of messy boil overs. It has nothing to do with keeping the spaghetti from clumping or sticking. And you only need, at most, a tablespoonful. To be fair, Julia does cite this use correctly. Of course, you can accomplish the same thing by using a taller pot and/or stirring once in awhile. And by simply lowering the heat a notch. Once water hits 212°, it's boiling. A rolling, roiling boil doesn't mean the water is boiling more. If you start to see foam creeping toward the top of your pot, turn the heat down a notch. As long as you don't drop it down to “low,” the water is still going to boil and cook the spaghetti. And you don't have to fool around with oil.
In fact, that's the best way to keep spaghetti from sticking together while it's cooking. Poor Julia. An overhead camera shot shows her throwing a handful of dry spaghetti in the general direction of her pot. It scatters out in a fan formation all over the pot. Some of it falls out of the pot. And, through it all, you hear her unique warbly voice saying, “I never know how to get it in the pot properly.”
It's pretty simple. Gather the dry spaghetti into a tight bunch in your hand and lower it all at once into the boiling water. Whole! Never, never, never, ever break it in half! Mario Batali will tell you (tongue in cheek) that breaking the spaghetti is a criminal offense in Italy, unless you have Papal dispensation. It'll only stick straight up in the pot for a few seconds. Then, as the submerged ends start to soften, you just take a spoon and swirl the noodles around until they are all underwater. Tah-dah!
It's all about the size and shape of the pot. If you're fixing spaghetti for four, you'll need a pound of spaghetti and at least – note the emphasis – five quarts of water. Now, you're not gonna fit that into a two-quart saucepan, are you? And a Dutch oven won't work real well either. If the water level reaches to within a half-inch of the top of the pot, you're looking at a mess waiting to happen. You need something as big around as a Dutch oven, but twice as tall. Something in which the spaghetti can swim around freely. That's the secret to keeping it from sticking. Giving it lots of room. Then keep it moving, especially in the first minute or two of cooking when the initial starches are being released. Stirring – not oiling – will keep your spaghetti clump free.
I couldn't help but notice that Julia didn't add any salt to the cooking water, opting, instead to season the spaghetti after it had cooked. Oh, my! Where to start.
According to general principles of good cooking, each element of a dish should be seasoned as it's prepared. There probably aren't many things blander than plain, unseasoned spaghetti. It needs salt. The best way for it to absorb the flavor of the salt is through the cooking process, therefore putting salt in the cooking water is essential. Adding salt after cooking – as Julia does – just results in spaghetti that is salty on the outside and bland on the inside. You need to add a generous two tablespoons of salt to your five quarts of water. No, it won't give you a stroke. Most of the salt will go down the drain with the water.
To her credit, Julia tastes the spaghetti to determine its doneness rather than throwing it at a wall, or something equally idiotic. She uses the term al dente – which means “to the tooth” or “to the bite.” But what does that mean? It means the spaghetti should be tender on the outside with just a little firmness on the inside. Undercooked spaghetti is tough and chewy; overcooked spaghetti is mushy. Al dente is that happy medium you're looking for. Follow your package directions. If the cooking time says “8 to 10 minutes,” go with eight. I'll tell you why in a minute.
Next, Julia dumps her spaghetti out into a colander and proceeds to drain the living beejeebers out of it, explaining that you have to drain it thoroughly. Okay, Julia, but not that thoroughly. A little pasta water can be your friend. Most good Italian cooks will even reserve a fraction of a cupful of cooking water for use in evening out a sauce, should it be required. Just drain it, but don't go nuts about it.
In the next breath, Julia states that its important to put oil on the cooked spaghetti “because if you don't sometimes the sauce sticks on it. I think it's better to flavor your spaghetti first and then put on the sauce.” And she says this as she's pouring a potful of sauce onto a plateful of spaghetti.
Aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhh! Wrong in so many ways! First of all, you want the sauce to stick to the spaghetti. That's the whole point of the dish! The only time I ever, ever, ever put oil on my cooked spaghetti is if I'm serving it as “spaghetti aglio e olio,” or spaghetti with garlic and oil. Otherwise you get greasy spaghetti that the sauce won't adhere to and flavor and that slips off your fork when you try to eat it. No wonder so many Americans can't get the hang of eating spaghetti. They prepare it in a way that dooms them to failure from the start.
And then there's the saucing issue. This is the true divider between American-style spaghetti and Italian-style spaghetti.
Julia – and the American cookbooks of her era – insists that you top the spaghetti with the sauce. This is a twentieth-century American perversion of traditional Italian cooking. As far back as “Simple Italian Cookery,” recipes that follow the true Italian method of preparation instruct you to add the drained spaghetti back into the sauce and cook it in the sauce for a minute or two. That's why I advised you to use the lower number of the “8 to 10 minute” instruction. Take the spaghetti out of the water at eight minutes and cook it in the sauce for two. That way, the flavor of the sauce is absorbed by the spaghetti.
Somehow, Americans got the idea that spaghetti should swim in puddles of sauce. Nothing could be further from the truth. Properly prepared and presented, there should be just enough sauce to coat the noodles. In Italian cooking, the spaghetti is the star of the dish. That's why it's essential for the noodles to be properly seasoned, properly cooked, and flavorful. The sauce is a condiment, something to add flavor and texture, like a dressing on a salad. Two things you'll never find at a real Italian table – sauce poured over the top and pools of sauce leftover.
Another thing you won't find – heaping, overflowing platters of spaghetti. The whole abbondanza thing is an Italian-American concept. People in Italy would consider the portions Americans serve to be extravagant at the least and wasteful at the most. Remember, most pastas dishes in Italy are served as primi – a precursor to the main meat or fish course. Only in America – or in restaurants catering to tourists in Italy – are these dishes served as a complete meal.
Which brings up my final point in the deconstruction of the American spaghetti dinner; garlic bread and salad served on the side.
Italians aren't huge on salads. Oh they exist, all right, and in great variety. It's just that Italians aren't addicted to serving them with every meal the way Americans are.
And there's no such thing as garlic bread. Sorry. Those were the first words out of my son's mouth when he called me from Italy. “Dad, did you know there's no such thing as garlic bread?” Somewhere in the last century, Americans got the idea of soaking slices of Italian bread in garlic-infused butter, dosing it with oregano, and calling it “Italian-style garlic bread.” Nope. No such thing.
Try this instead; slice up a loaf of Italian bread, or any crusty, rustic loaf – F***ch bread will do – into half to three-quarter-inch slices. Drizzle on a little extra virgin olive oil. And I mean drizzle, not soak. Stick it under the broiler for a minute or so until it starts to get toasty. Grab a clove of garlic and cut an end off. Rub the cut end of the garlic clove over the surface of the toasted bread a few times. A little goes a long way. Then lightly sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse salt – kosher or sea – over the bread. Now you've got “garlic bread” made the Italian way.
Pair that – and, okay, maybe a small salad – with a realistic portion of properly prepared and sauced spaghetti and you've got a real Italian-style spaghetti dinner. (You still won't find it listed that way on a menu in Italy, but.....close enough.)
Oh, and on a non-cooking note; in her “French Chef” episode, Julia repeats the old myth about Marco Polo and spaghetti from China. That's why she calls her sauce a “Marco Polo” sauce and even uses chopsticks to stir it up. What can I say? The Marco Polo myth started circulating in America in the early twentieth century and will probably be around until the end of time. Scholars have proven it false time after time, but there it is, and when people hear it on TV from Julia Child's lips – well it has to be true, right?