Nothing Beats Pasta For Simplicity And Versatility
I love it when readers ask questions in the comments section. Here's one I got the other day from a reader named “Jeff”:
“Hi Ron! I stumbled on your blog today and I love it – thank you for doing this. I am starting to learn to cook and was wondering if I could get your advice on something... I just learned how to cook eggs in 5 different ways. Knowing what you know now, what would you suggest is the SECOND thing I should learn how to make? I am a little intimidated by cooking meat and would appreciate your thoughts. Thank you so much!”
I had to think about the answer for awhile. Jeff's being intimidated by meat kind of slowed me down because the very first thing I ever learned to cook – at age seven – was bacon. Since Jeff has learned eggs five ways, bacon would logically seem to be next on the menu. And a lot of people, myself included, rate roast chicken up there as an essential skill for beginners. I thought back on some other non-meat things I learned to cook early on and eventually I came up with something. I'll get to it in a minute.
But first let's look at “cooking.” I grew up in the late '50s and early '60s and that's when I made my first forays into the kitchen. Unfortunately, those decades were the height of the culinary “Dark Ages” when Mad Men ad men had America convinced that convenience was king and that additive and preservative-laden fare in boxes, cans, and frozen pouches was the “modern” answer to old fashioned kitchen drudgery. Why spend hours in the kitchen slaving away with fresh ingredients when you could just open a box and have a “wholesome” meal in minutes? My mom – an excellent cook in her earlier years – drank the Madison Avenue Kool Aid and so my first “cooking” ventures involved Shake 'n Bake, instant mashed potatoes, Minute Rice, any vegetable Birdseye or the Jolly Green Giant froze in a bag, and whatever boxed dessert mix Betty Crocker or the Pillsbury Dough Boy could conjure up. Then the '70s came along with the newfangled microwave that effectively turned Mom's oven into a place to store Tupperware. Dark days, indeed.
And recent surveys show that the darkness is far from passing. Even as food seems to be taking over the airwaves with shows like “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” and “The Chew,” and food culture appears to be undergoing a renaissance, a frightening number of teens and young adults think of “cooking” in terms of heating up take-out food in the microwave or popping a Pop-Tart in the toaster.
Now, since Jeff is reading my blog (and presumably others like it) I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that he is not interested in “reheating” and that he actually wants to learn how to cook. With that in mind, I'm going to go with pasta as the “second thing” a beginning cook should learn how to make. Nothing beats pasta for simplicity and versatility.
Of course, the first pasta I learned to cook was the good ol' blue box of macaroni and cheese. Don't judge. I was only eight and it was the '60s, okay? I learned better fairly quickly. And once you learn the basics – “Pasta 101” – you open the door to an endless variety of delicious dishes. I'll discuss two of them: macaroni and cheese and spaghetti.
Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate American comfort food and it's simple to make, even without a packet of day-glo orange toxic chemicals and preservatives. There are two typical preparations for macaroni and cheese dishes; stovetop and baked. They both start out the same, but finish differently.
The stovetop version, which is what the blue box turns out, is the quickest and easiest – and happens to be my wife's favorite. It is nothing but pasta – usually elbow macaroni – butter, milk, cheese, a little flour, and some salt and pepper.
Here's what you'll need:
8 ounces elbow macaroni (or other short, hollow pasta)
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt, plus extra for seasoning the water
a dash of black pepper
2 cups milk
8 ounces cheddar cheese (mild or sharp, depending on your taste)
And here's what you need to do:
Cook the pasta in four quarts of boiling, salted water according to package directions. You'll want to add at least two tablespoons of salt to the boiling water just before you add the pasta. (No, it's not too much.) While the pasta is cooking, you're going to do something all French and fancy; you're going to make a roux, turn it into a bechamel, and then transform that into a mornay. You're really just making a cheese sauce, but doesn't the other way sound more impressive?
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it's melted, stir in the flour. Stirring constantly, let the resulting paste (the roux) cook for a minute or two and then slowly add the milk. (It helps if the milk is warm.) Add the salt and pepper and cook and stir until the sauce (the bechamel) is bubbly. Stir in the cheese and cook, stirring frequently, until the cheese melts into the sauce. (Now you have a mornay.)
Drain the macaroni, reserving a cup or two of the cooking water. Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce and stir it up to coat, adding a little of the pasta water as necessary to achieve the desired consistency in your sauce.
This recipe will serve four people.
My wife thinks I complicate the process by making an actual cheese sauce. Her method is to skip the flour and just add the butter, milk, cheese and the salt and pepper directly to the hot drained pasta and stir it in until it melts. Try it both ways and see which works best for you.
After you master the basic procedure, you can play with flavors a bit. Some folks like a little nutmeg in the sauce. And you can mix and blend different cheeses. My wife is partial to American cheese and she uses Velveeta a lot. I sometimes mix in Parmesan, provolone, fontina or other Italian cheeses to change up the flavor profile. Just have fun with it.
The baked option is what you'll usually find listed as “classic” macaroni and cheese. It's pretty much the same procedure, except you make it and then bake it. You'll just need a little more butter and some breadcrumbs. Here's what you do.
Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the stovetop recipe. The only thing you'll do differently is cut back the cooking time on the pasta by a minute or two. You want to do this any time you're preparing pasta to bake. If you fully cook it to start with and then cook it further in the oven, it'll get a little mushy.
Preheat your oven to 400°. When the macaroni and cheese is ready, lightly grease an oven-proof baking dish with some of the extra butter and coat it with some of the breadcrumbs. Pour in the cooked macaroni and cheese, spread it into an even layer, and top it with more breadcrumbs. Bake it for about twenty minutes or until the top starts to turn a nice golden brown.
If macaroni and cheese is classic American comfort food, spaghetti is the Italian equivalent. When it comes to spaghetti, though, I'm going to tell you something that may shock you: I don't care how many “Italian” restaurants you've been to or how many church suppers you've attended, Italians don't eat spaghetti and meatballs and they don't eat spaghetti with meat sauce. The gold standard for classic Italian spaghetti is plain old spaghetti al pomodoro – spaghetti in tomato sauce. Nothing is simpler or more delicious.
If you're just learning to cook, you might as well start out right. All spaghetti is not created equal. Quality counts. As in construction, cheap building materials yield disastrous results. Bargain brand noodles are often made with inferior ingredients that will cook poorly. The kind of flour used in the pasta dictates the rate at which it releases starch when it's cooking. Cheap stuff often breaks down quickly and/or unevenly, resulting in a mushy, overcooked final product. Choose a good Italian pasta. Not just one with a vowel at the end, but one that actually has something to do with Italy. You can find it in Italian specialty stores, but if you're just shopping at a regular supermarket, DeCecco or Barilla are your best bets.
As for the sauce, homemade is always best. And tomato sauce really isn't that hard to make. I'm going to give you a simple recipe for a decent sauce. But if you don't think you're ready for that lesson, use a prepared sauce. For most purposes, jarred sauce is generally good; canned sauce is generally not. Again, buy a decent quality sauce and don't get one that has all kinds of stuff in it. Supermarket shelves sag with sauces that have meat and vegetables and mushrooms and cheese and everything but the kitchen sink in them. You don't need or want that. Plain, “traditional” tomato sauce is all you need. You can add the other stuff yourself if you want, using fresh ingredients. And as your skill level improves, you can make it all from scratch. But to start with, use a good, plain sauce.
One more note on cooking spaghetti......well, actually two: don't grease up the water and don't bust up the noodles. If mama and grandma did it that way, I'm sorry. That just goes to show that for most of the twentieth century, Americans didn't know from a hole in the ground how to cook pasta. DO add salt to the water – “like the sea,” as the saying goes. Two or three tablespoons is not too much. DON'T add oil. Even a drop is too much. Oil and water don't mix and oiled water doesn't keep pasta from sticking. It just makes oily pasta. Lots of water – four or five quarts of it – is what keeps pasta from sticking. And don't break it in half before you cook it. Just.......just don't. Unless you want to make a grown Italian cry.
Here's what you need:
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 (28 oz) can whole peeled plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
fresh basil leaves, torn
12 oz spaghetti
2 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano
Here's what you do:
If you are making your own sauce, begin by dumping the tomatoes in a big bowl and crushing them, preferably by hand. If you want a chunkier sauce, this is where you stop. If a smoother sauce is desired, puree the crushed tomatoes in a blender, a food processor, or by using an immersion blender.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the minced onion and cook, stirring, until soft, three or four minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook two or three minutes more. Don't allow the garlic to brown, or it will become bitter. Add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for an additional minute.
Increase the heat to medium and add in the crushed or pureed tomatoes. Season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, about twenty minutes. Remove from the heat and add in the torn basil leaves. Set aside.
If you're using sauce from a jar, pour it into a large skillet – not a saucepan – and heat it up over medium-low heat. Dress it up with a glug of olive oil and maybe some basil or oregano. Taste it and see what it needs. When it's warmed through, put it on a back burner and hold it at a low temperature.
Meanwhile, bring four or five quarts of salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti to just short of al dente. “Al dente” means “to the tooth,” which means the noodle should have a little firmness in the center when you bite into it. It shouldn't be hard and undercooked, but you don't want it soft and mushy either. Drain the pasta, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.
If you're using homemade sauce, take out the basil and return the sauce to the heat. Stir in a little pasta water to loosen the sauce and bring it to a simmer. Add the cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce and continue cooking for about two minutes, stirring to thoroughly coat the pasta with sauce. Follow the same procedure if you're using jarred sauce. In either case, add the pasta to the sauce and not the other way around. You will get better flavor and better texture in your finished dish by letting the pasta cook in the sauce for a minute or two. That's why you want to use a large skillet rather than a saucepan. Don't ever pile plain spaghetti on a plate and pour sauce over it. I know, I know......that's the way your favorite “Italian” restaurant does it. Believe me, they only do it that way because that's the way Americans have come to expect it. If the folks back in the kitchen are the least bit Italian, you can bet they don't do it that way at home.
Anyway, finish off by removing the pan from the heat and adding the butter and the cheese. Toss gently until the butter blends in and the cheese melts. The butter isn't strictly necessary, but it gives a nice glossy finish to the sauce. And as far as the cheese is concerned, if you use that horrible cheese-flavored sawdust they sell in green cardboard or plastic containers, I will know and I will find you and it won't be pretty. Seriously, if you can't find or afford Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano, at least use some domestic variety of Parmesan or pecorino cheese. Please. The canned stuff is just nasty.
Transfer your bella la pasta to warmed bowls and serve. This recipe also serves four people.
Once you master these very basic pasta dishes, there are literally hundreds more you can make, limited only by your creativity and the availability of ingredients. Let me know when you're ready, Jeff, and I'll give you a recipe for pasta carbonara. There are eggs in it, so technically you could add a new egg dish to your repertoire. :-)
Speaking of eggs, you didn't say what the “five ways” you learned were, but let me tell you about frittate.......or croque madame......eggs Florentine.....Caprese poached eggs.....baked egg casserole.....oooo, oooo,.....homemade mayonnaise!