As someone who has co-written close to 20 cookbooks, most of them ostensibly engineered to serve people like my friend, I’ve abetted a plague of needless ambition, hawking freshly rolled tagliatelle with Parmesan fonduta to home cooks who don’t know when their boxed fettuccine is done. Even those of us thoroughly suffused with the tenets of pasta cookery can feel saturated by the deluge of cool hacks, surprising pairings and gonzo level-ups that do for your daily what’s-for-dinner decision what Instagram-scrolling does for your travel planning. What’s meant to inspire, in fact, dispirits.
Between cookbooks and magazines populated with directions for handcrafted noodles and rousing one-pot pastas, searching for meal ideas can feel like peering into a potluck where the best cooks in the country show off their stuff. It’s Beltway-style parochialism at the stove, each recipe the culinary equivalent of a Politico newsletter. Meanwhile, you’re just trying to make dinner from rigatoni remnants and a head of broccoli.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for books on, say, the artistry of the sfoglini of Emilia-Romagna. But I also firmly believe that part of celebrating centuries-old food traditions is acknowledging that there’s no way a Brooklyn-based dingus like me will successfully execute garganelli on his first, second or 17th go. And while I eagerly slurp up the sagacity of the pasta pundits who advocate using starchy, salty pasta water to emulsify sauce so it enrobes each noodle, just like at your favorite restaurant, the last time I tried to perform their preferred magic trick, the touch of ragu plus cooking liquid in which I finished my fusilli reduced to a slick of pure sodium.
Instead, I gravitate toward the fruits of the recipe gurus devoted to weeknight-friendly cooking. That’s where I find dinner ideas and the instructions to pull them off. Generated by people who are essentially my more talented counterparts — I help chefs write recipes, but these people develop and write their own — the options are a marvel, an endless parade of imaginative pestos, historically minded amatricianas and seasonal riffs on cacio e pepe created with the busy home cook in mind. But, ultimately, these recipes serve the person I wish I were, not the one I am.
While I might seem proficient on paper, whatever knack I’ve gained working side by side with some of the most exciting chefs in the country is pretty much canceled out by congenital haplessness, Larry David-level neurosis and a disability that makes draining a pot of penne feel as perilous as Alaskan crab fishing. For years, I’d observe some virtuoso extrude her own spaghetti by day, and then I’d wreck pots of Barilla by night. Until, at last, I came up with a way that works for me.
Now, whether I’m following a recipe or freestyling while fridge clearing, I jettison all but a few of the little wisdoms gleaned from TV shows, cookbooks and magazine spreads, and I add a couple of my own.
First, I bring plenty of water to a boil in a large pot, then salt it so it tastes more like soup than sea. Sometimes I wonder whether whoever came up with the poetic “salty as the sea” descriptor, which has the noble purpose of persuading timid cooks to sprinkle in more than five grains of Diamond Crystal kosher, has ever been walloped by a wave and gulped a mouthful of the Atlantic. Next, I very much do not do what practically every recipe for pasta I’ve ever read or written advises, which is to submerge the pasta and then “meanwhile” make the saucy stuff.
What a lovely idea, this meanwhile, during which you saute sausage and raab or steam clams with white wine, the last shell popping open just as your linguine is ready. In reality, however, adding pasta to boiling water begins the ruthless countdown to al dente, and unless you’re an expert multitasker with a keen sense of timing, you’ll inevitably find yourself flat-footed and frantic at the moment of truth.
Instead, as the water heats up, use a pan large enough to hold your pasta with room to spare to leisurely make the sauce, season it with care and cover so it keeps warm. Only then should you add the pasta. Also, keep in mind that many recipes claim 10 to 12 ounces of the dried stuff will serve four people, and while this might be true at the kind of meal where sophisticates enjoy a pasta course, it’s not true at my house, where the pasta is dinner and there are no prudent eaters residing.
The sauce accomplished, everything now rests on nailing the doneness of those noodles — your evening, sure, but your sense of self worth, too, because if you mess this up, what won’t you ruin?
Once the pasta is in, give it a good stir, then maybe, maybe, do a couple simple tasks such as grating a mountain of Parmesan and readying tongs (for long noodles) or a scooper dealie (for tubes, twists, et al.). These tools will spare you having to wash a colander and clean out the sink to make room for one. Otherwise you should do absolutely nothing else in the meanwhile but wait with the patience and focus of a cat stalking a small bird — podcasts off, children ignored. The daredevils among you will set a timer and go about your business.
When the noodles have been in a good five minutes less than the box predicts, you pounce, using the tongs or scooper to access one to appraise. Continue this sampling, first every minute then later every 13 seconds, until you have identified a state just short of what you’d like to eat. Then use your tool to move the noodles to the pan with the sauce, letting a little of the starchy, soup-salty water join for the trip. Reserve the rest of that water, not for the purposes of enabling emulsification but because gradually adding some can keep the saucy stuff saucy.
Finally, plate your pasta and, if Parmesan is appropriate, add a ton. After all, you’re not at the kind of restaurant where a light Microplaned flurry would provide just the right accent for gossamer ravioli. You’re at home, where you’re the chef and something has probably gone wrong, and plenty of cheese will help you feel as though it hasn’t.
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