A dish of mine that breaks a lot of the supposed rules about pasta, US Marine-Style Chili Mac. The former Marine was happy with it, which is what matters.
I’ve been away from this blog for a while now. Eight months, plus-or-minus a few days, off doing other web projects and writings while upgrading my photography skills. Mary and I have also been exploring other foods, which is now a rather firm habit, so I’ve updated my Food Bucket List Quiz accordingly. Sometimes the life she and I share seems to revolve around food, with various ingredients and dishes ending up on our radar as “must try” items. So we seek them out, with some interesting surprises. Finding that simple elk burgers with salt and pepper, Swiss cheese, and mayo are far tastier than beef or bison burgers has been one of those pleasant surprises.
Recently a dear friend whom I’d met online in a food community posted a link to a piece on Serious Eats, “10 Common Crimes Against Pasta You Don’t Have to Commit.” (OK I’ll admit it … Serious Eats was where we met, way back at its beginnings when it was more of an actual community rather than a Food News site.) This particular article though irked me just a tad too far. We kinda “discussed” it (I may have been a bit harsh, but thankfully she’s from Poutine country), but in the end my Canadian buddy and I ended up having to agree to disagree. I’d prefer she not smack me across the head with a can of self-labeled family-made craft beer (which she could do), but she’s a hockey-loving Canuck so that ain’t gonna happen. I think … I mean, I hope not …
So, what’s wrong with the Serious Eats piece? Almost everything.
Let’s talk first about what’s right with the piece:
- Adding Oil to Pasta Water: Spot on. Knock that off.
- Straining and Rinsing: The only time you’ll want to do this is if you’re making a chilled pasta salad, which coincidentally is is a point the author neglects to discuss.
- Choosing Fresh Over Dry: No, there’s really no way anyone can tell the difference. Pasta itself is an art form, and dried pasta is one of the best ingredients ever developed.
- Overcooking: Great point. If I want mashed potatoes, I’ll make mashed potatoes. Mushy pasta isn’t nearly as good.
- Not Stirring: Oh those clumps. This can be a realy problem. Don’t be that cook.
Now… Let’s talk about the disagreements, the author’s other five points:
- Breaking Long Pasta: This is a personal choice. There’s nothing anywhere that states that pasta cannot be broken, except in the author’s mind. I’ll particularly break it in half if the grandkids are having dinner with us, and I know they can’t yet handle longer noodles. But sometimes, I just don’t want to deal with having to spin the fork when I’m eating after a long day, so I’ll break the noodles. It’s not a big deal, certainly no “crime.”
- Saucing Plain Pasta: Unless you’re running an Italian restaurant having specific geographical and cultural influences, don’t stir the pasta with the sauce in the kitchen. That’s not how most people eat, and that’s fine.
- Undercooking: The author says it himself, “Others are more forgiving on this one. Their motto? Go on. Make My D-ent-ay. I tell you what, this is one where we’ll usually turn a blind eye, as long as no one pushes their luck.” Sounds good to me… and you should have left it off the list.
- Adding Pre-Grated Cheese, and Oversaucing …
These last two are what pushed me over the edge.
Let’s take a look at four of these points in combination: Undercooking, Saucing Plain Pasta, Oversaucing, and Adding Pre-Grated Cheese. Firstly is the statement that makers of pre-grated cheese “add filler like cellulose (yup, basically sawdust).” No, cellulose isn’t sawdust, look it up. But what these four points do is degrade diner and pub spaghetti, which in my mind is a crime by the author.
Consider the thousands of Greek and Macedonian diners in North America. Contrary to the rather loud corporate policies on the subject (corporations which were, coincidentally, founded as family operations), these successful diners have been run by families for generations. Their busy kitchen might have two cooks at best, maybe three for Sunday after-church crowds. The range will have a commercial 20-quart pasta cooker set on it which, during lunch and dinner service, will be at a constant boil. Each of the four baskets will be rotated through by the cooks as necessary to cook spaghetti, linguini, or whatever else might be ordered.
Here’s what happens: The place might seat 60 – 80 people. On a Saturday for both lunch and dinner service or early on Sunday afternoon, there might be a line at the door. Add a couple school buses for after sporting events and you’ve got a crowd. You do the best you can in getting all the pasta orders through the four baskets in that pot, keeping all the covers at given tables together as best you can. Each basket of pasta gets a quick shake at the end of cooking (after a rather rapid check for doneness), then it’s dumped into a wide-edged 20 oz stoneware pasta bowl. The sauce, which has been kept at serving temperature either in a stock pot on the range or in a counter-top steam table, is then spooned onto the pasta … without stirring the pasta in, in a saute pan, on the already too-busy stovetop … and the bowl is slid onto the pass for the server. The cheese? Thats the grated stuff in the shaker on the table. Add as much as you’d like, we don’t have the time.
Is this a “crime against pasta”? No, it’s not. It’s how thousands of people enjoy pasta at their local diner or pub each and every day. It’s what they’re used to, what they grew up with, and they love it. And to be even more accurate, that’s probably how they currently prepare it at home as well.
To state otherwise, to say it’s wrong, is to disregard reality from an ivory tower.
The author then misses a few important points. The first one is Using Jarred Or Canned Sauce directly from its container. (In case you’re unaware, most foodservice sauce arrives in a case of six #10 cans.) Most of these are too sweet to be considered even halfway decent. But I’m not saying you have to make sauce from scratch either, although that’s best. Jarred or canned sauces can be made better by simply adding pre-cooked meats such as Italian sausage, additional stewed tomatoes or tomato sauce or, even better, adding smoked paprika, sauteed onions and garlic, pepper flakes, a good premixed Italian seasoning … Be creative until you find what tastes best to you. Then let it simmer for a while and taste it before seasoning again just to be sure.
More importantly though, Not Salting The Pasta Water is a rather massive point for the author to have missed. If you’re not generously salting the water prior to it boiling, your noodles will be bland. Don’t not do that. And if you’re a diner cook who’s not adding salt to that four-basket contraption when you’re topping off the water from evaporation, that’s where complaints might come from.
And then there’s the subject of cheese sauces. This is something the author completely ignored, and it’s not clear why. But there are a couple of points to be made about it. Stirring The Cheese Into The Pasta In The Pot is something you should not do. Both long and short pastas will likely break or become smashed in the smaller space of the pot regardless of how careful you are. Fold Alfredo sauce into long pasta using a pair of tongs in a saute pan or shallow bowl, and literally toss short pasta with cheese sauce in a large mixing bowl.
We can also paraphrase an earlier additional rule by saying Using Jarred Or Canned Cheese Sauce directly from its container is a bad move. It’s either far too thick, too rich, or a combination of both. But as with red sauces you can change them up, adding whole milk or half-and-half to thin down the consistency and dulling the richness. And if you go too far, adding even pizza cheese to simmering cheese sauce will bring back some of the thickness. It’s not too difficult to have some creative fun with it.
We’ll finish with a historical recipe from a famous and venerable NYC Italian restaurant, a recipe which specifically states to cook spaghetti “until done to your taste.” The page previous to this recipe states “The Italians usually like pasta firm, al dente (to the teeth), but Americans like it a little softer [contrary to the Serious Eats opinion].” That same page finishes with “The sauce should be put on each individual serving [again, contrary to the Serious Eats opinion] and the cheese should be served separately to the guest.” Coincidentally though, the below recipe is served Family Style, so the sauce is mixed into the spaghetti.
A little history: Luisa “Mother” Leone opened Mamma Leone’s restaurant with her husband Gerome’s blessing (and at family friend Enrico Caruso’s urging) on April 27, 1906, with 20 seats. Over time, and with a move to 239 W. 48th St. (now an alley next to La Masseria), the restaurant grew to seat 1,500, serving 6,000 covers on busy evenings. Gerome died in 1914. Luisa died on May 4, 1944, and son Gene bought his sister out in 1952 to become sole owner. The restaurant served Eisenhower, George M. Cohan, W.C. Fields, Victor Herbert, Liberace, and countless others. Chef Gene sold the restaurant to Restaurant Associates on June 9, 1959. Restaurant Associates operated Mamma Leone’s until closing it for good on January 10, 1994. In 1967 Chef Gene published “Leone’s Italian Cookbook” containing the restaurant’s story, with a forward by Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as more than 300 recipes that were served in the restaurant from 1906 to 1959.
Mother Leone's Spaghetti with Italian-Sausage and Eggplant Sauce
- 1 lb Italian Sweet Sausage
- 1 Eggpant, fresh about 1-1/2 lbs
- 2 lg Garlic cloves, mashed
- 10 sprigs Parsley, fresh leaves only
- 3 Tbsp Olive oil
- 1/4 cup Butter, fresh
- 2 oz Salt pork, diced
- 1/4 lb Onions, peeled and diced
- 1 tsp Salt
- 1/2 tsp Black pepper
- 3 Green peppers, sliced very thin
- 2 cups Plum tomatoes, peeled, chopped or sieved about a 1 lb con worth
- 3 lg Tomatoes, ripe, chopped fine
- Parmesan cheese
- Remove the casing from the sausage and cut the meat into small pieces. Wash and dry the eggplant but do not peel it. Cut it into 6 crosswise slices and then into 1/2 inch cubes. Chop the garlic and parsley together.
- Combine olive oil, butter and salt pork in a saucepan: heat. Add onions and cook until medium brown. Add sausage and brown for 10 minutes. Add garlic and parsley, salt and pepper, and cook for 10 minutes longer. Add green peppers and eggplant cubes, stir, and cook for 5 minutes. Add canned and fresh tomatoes and cook for 30 minutes, slowly. Taste to see if sauce is cooked and add more salt if necessary.
- Cook 3 ounces spaghetti per person in boiling salted water for about 12 minutes, until done to your taste. Drain well and place in a large bowl. Pour sausage and eggplant sauce over the pasta. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over it. Mix and serve on warm individual plates. Enjoy this dish with a bottle of aged Barolo. Makes about 6 cups sauce.