Summer lovin’: 

Making pasta like the pros

There is something about late summer that screams “PASTA!” Could it be all the fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic, onions, and peppers? Well...yes. These things are some of the most important materials that add up to action-packed bowls of pasta-borne pleasure. Not only is it time to eat pasta in the present, it’s time to prepare for the eating of pasta in the future. Abe Lincoln once said that if he had six hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first five hours sharpening the ax. Indeed, as with many endeavors in this world, preparation is key, and pasta is no exception.

To illustrate, I’ll walk you through a recent meal of gnocchi—potato-filled pasta, available at the Broadway Market: shrink-wrapped fresh and flown in from Italy, for CHEAP! Their gnocchi comes in many flavors: squash, spinach, sun-dried tomato, mushroom, and plain. I think my favorite is squash.

The sauce for this meal is so quick to prepare that I did it while the water was boiling. At this point I must point out some things about pasta water. I salt the water, which raises the boiling point. With pasta, you want that water hot, and you want plenty of water. If not, then the addition of pasta cools the water below the boiling point, which is a recipe for soggy, starchy noodles. And Chef Boy Ari doesn’t have time for soggy, starchy noodles, and neither do you. Trust me: Use the big pot, OK? I also add a few drops of medium-quality olive oil (as in extra-virgin, but not the really good stuff) to lube the water and prevent the pasta from sticking to itself.

While my properly-prepared water was heating, I put a mixture of grapeseed oil and medium-quality olive oil (again: the extra-virgin, but not the really good stuff) into a cast-iron skillet on medium heat. Olive oil will burn if you fry it too hot, so I mix it with grapeseed oil, which is cheap, flavorless and can take high-heat no problem. That’s the way to fry with olive oil. And if anyone tries to tell you differently, you can tell them that Chef Boy Ari says kiss my ass.

Once the oil is hot, I add a chopped anchovy. This smells kind of strong at first, but as the flavors layer on, the anchovy taste krelms into place. After the anchovies fry solo for a minute or two, I add chopped onions and chopped mushrooms.

Then I open a jar of pickled peppers (See “Flash in the Pan,” issue 34 for details). This particular jar of peppers was pickled with a sprig of tarragon, which adds a really good flavor to the jar, making it especially harmonious with red sauce. I fished a Louisiana pepper from the jar, chopped it, and added it to the skillet. Then I spooned some mustard seeds from the bottom of the jar and added them, too. Then I poured some of that spicy tarragon vinegar into the pan. Now, you are starting to see the importance of pickled peppers, no? Truly the “secret weapon” of cooking: Preparation. Then I add some oregano, stir it in, and then pour red wine into the pan. At this point, things are starting to smell good. My buddy Gomezsh likes to add a few bay leaves. I’m OK with that. Then I add some chopped basil and minced garlic. I stir it all up, and add some canned tomato sauce base.

To make tomato base, run a whole bunch of tomatoes through the blender, ideally with some basil, and then cook it slowly in a pot. Cook it slow enough, and stir often enough, that it DOESN’T SCALD ON THE BOTTOM OF THE POT. When this has cooked down to about 25 percent original volume (four to eight hours), add salt to taste. Then put it into pint jars and process it for 30 minutes in a waterbath. A little of this concentrated tomato goes a long way. I’m on my last jar from last year, and I just made a big batch for next year. Preparation!

Then I add gnocchi to the boiling water, making sure to separate them. After two minutes they start floating, so I drain, and dump it all into a bowl.

Now is the MOST IMPORTANT PART: the dressing of the pasta. If you do what I’m about to tell you, you can basically ignore the rest of the article, because any sauce (or none) will taste great on this pasta. And great sauce will taste vastly superior. Pour some olive oil—THE GOOD STUFF!—onto the still-hot pasta. Add some minced garlic, and grated cheese (if you’re into the processed mammary secretions of the bovine species). Mix it all in the bowl. The heat from the pasta half-cooks the garlic. You can also toss in some baby spinach or arugula, which also gets cooked by the heat of the pasta. Then stir in the sauce, and dish. Finally, dollop an appropriate quantity of mayonnaise. No, I’m not kidding. Trust me. 

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