February 25th, 2009
A thoughtful reader pointed us to a blog post by cooking athourity/food scientist Harold McGee who provided validation for our cooking method as well as some other tips for producing great pasta while saving energy.
I confess that when it comes to Italian food, I’m a reactionary. With my forebears’ culinary traditions predating the Medicis, I feel entitled. When I make my grandmother’s recipes, I do them the way she did. (I still wear L. L. Bean’s blue, oxford-cloth, button-down-collar shirts, the same brand I wore in junior high, though that’s a story for another time…)
When my grandmother cooked pasta, she used a large pot filled nearly to the brim with salted water. (Hers was so large that she needed help to set it on the stove.) And if her example weren’t sufficient, the late Franco and Margaret Romagnoli, who helped me expand my view of Italian food beyond Sicilian-American, trumpeted the necessity to cook pasta in “a capacious pot with copious amounts of salted water.”
And still, the iconic Lydia Bastianich recommends at least four (better yet, six, quarts of water) per pound of pasta. These are the exacting standards of my mentors. And until quite recently, they were mine…
My enlightenment occurred at one of the chain close-out stores where I regularly buy discounted treats like Croatian eggplant spread and hecho en Mexico hot sauce. I found myself drawn to a large display of Lexan plastic tubes, cooking devices whose packages promised fast, fool-proof cooking of everything from greenbeans to kielbasa.
But what really caught my attention was the name: Pasta Perfect ™ “as seen on TV.” I imagined the sort of infomercial that always boasts it has “operators standing by.” The sheer silliness of it all was as appalling as it was intriguing. That any self-respecting Italian would attempt to cook a pound of pasta in a quart of still water! My co-author (whose attitude towards traditions, even Italian traditions, is that they are merely suggestions—not mandates) was beside me, saying, “We’ve got to write about this. You know we do. ”
I wondered why…
Like many others, I’ve become a lot more energy-conscious over the past decade. And considering the amount of pasta I cook, I’ve often pondered how much energy it takes to cook this Italian staple, that is, to bring six quarts of water to a “full rolling boil” before I’ve even dropped in the pasta, which then cooks for seven to ten minutes. So while “receptive” might not be the precise term for my initial attitude towards Pasta Perfect, I was persuaded that it might be worth some consideration.
But despite my suspicion that I may have a big sign around my neck that reads, “Rube,” I wasn’t immediately prepared to part with even $5.95 to find pasta Nirvana in a Lexan tube.
Holly and I decided that an experiment was in order. Back in her kitchen, we took an 8-cup vintage Fire King Jade-ite mixing bowl and put in a teaspoon of salt and a half-pound of farfalle. This pasta, shaped like bow-ties, is notoriously unpredictable to cook in any amount of water. (The corners tend to get overcooked and break off before the pinched centers are done.)
I brought approximately one quart of water to a full rolling boil, poured it over the pasta, gave it a quick stir, and covered the bowl with plastic wrap and a thick kitchen towel (thinking that the towel would provide additional insulation). Following the directions we’d read back at the store (those that came with the Pasta Perfect we had not purchased), we set the timer for eleven minutes. Because Jade-ite is opaque, we were unable to see whatever alchemy was in progress. We poured a couple of glasses of vino and watched the clock.
Given my skepticism, I was astonished that the pasta had cooked to any point of edibility. But to find it exquisitely al dente was mind-boggling! It just didn’t seem reasonable that pasta that sat in still water for eleven minutes could cook to the same degree of doneness as pasta cooked for eight minutes in rapidly boiling water. How could generations of Italians not have known this?
But there we were. We looked at each other and said, “We need to tell Harold McGee and to ask him WHY.” And we did—emailing him about a two and a half years ago, in the fall of 2006.
We never heard back from him, but who knows what the reigning American kitchen scientist’s SPAM filter is like. Maybe he doesn’t watch late-night shopping channels… Chances are pretty good he’d never heard of a Chinese-made plastic cylinder for cooking pasta—or of us…
But back then, we were undaunted and more than a little curious. Because of that experiment with the covered bowl, we did go back to purchase the Pasta Perfect. (We confess: we bought two of them, one for each house.)
Our first test of the real Pasta Perfect wasn’t quite perfect. It certainly wouldn’t have been suitable for TV. Again, following the tips in the “handy” recipe booklet that came with our “utensil,” we used a half-pound of linguine. After the magic eleven minutes had elapsed, the pasta was indeed suitably al dente, but we found it slightly gummy. Then, we tried a half-pound of penne rigate for the recommended fourteen minutes. Pasta Perfect’s instructions give specific times for different pasta shapes. Again, we found this tubular pasta gummy, and this time, slightly undercooked. So, this was not noodle Nirvana, at least not yet. We persevered.
What we couldn’t deny was that we were saving at least ten minutes of energy to keep an electric burner on high heat every time we cooked pasta. Multiplying that by a few bowls of linguine with clam sauce, the savings would be substantial. Meanwhile, my co-author, who has another life organizing yacht charters in the Mediterranean, was thinking of conservation of fresh water aboard a sailboat. A lot of pasta gets served on her summertime charters… and Pasta Perfect was lightweight,virtually unbreakable, more compact than a large kettle…
So it seemed to us that Pasta Perfect could have a place among our kitchen armamentaria after all.
As Mario Batali has demonstrated on Food TV, Italians frequently finish cooking pasta in the sauce in which it is to be served. That is, the chef will cook the pasta to near-completion in boiling water, then add the drained pasta to a pan of sauce to finish cooking. The pasta absorbs both flavor and color from the sauce and develops an unctuous quality that mere boiling cannot achieve.
We’ve developed a routine in which we use the Pasta Perfect technique, but ONLY IF we are going to make a sauce in which it would be appropriate to finish cooking our pasta.
I’ve been feeling especially virtuous about the electricity we’re saving. However, as the author of two Italian-American cookbooks, I’ve kept mum on this heretical way of cooking pasta all the while thinking of how I could break the news to other traditionalists.
In the meantime, I must admit we’ve been making some pretty good pasta. Well, mostly…
I had a small lapse the last time I made Pasta alla Carbonara. This is a dish in which the hot pasta is supposed to cook the sauce. And because the sauce consists of crisped pancetta, Parmesan, lots of freshly-ground black pepper, and beaten raw eggs, one can understand why it is important that the pasta be VERY HOT indeed.
Perhaps I was distracted by another project which entailed the sixth or seventh change of soaking water for my salt-cod? (Look for our baccalà recipe in a week or so.) In any case, it never crossed my mind that pasta cooked in a closed, insulated vessel, and fully cooked “to the tooth,” would not be hot enough to cook and thicken the egg mixture when all the ingredients were combined.
We didn’t wind up with any egg-borne ailments, but the eggs stayed runny and never gave the spaghetti the rich coating that makes the dish a success.
Moral of the story: Don’t use Pasta Perfect for Pasta alla Carbonara.
In fact, you don’t have to use Pasta Perfect or any of its plastic clones (Pasta Pleasure, Pasta Express, Clear-Cook, etc.) for anything, though the see-through tubes are nice for storing pasta. Here’s how to use the Pasta Perfect cooking method with vessels you already own:
Take a lidded 2-3 quart saucepan with some heft. Heat-proof glass, enameled cast-iron, anodized aluminum, heavy stainless all work well. Be sure it’s at least as heavy as as RevereWare.
For a half-pound of pasta, use a 8 cups of water; for a full pound, you may use a little bit more (say, 10 cups) because you want to retain the heat from the boiled water.
Bring the water to a rolling boil, then stir in at least a teaspoon of salt and the dry pasta. Turn off the heat; set a timer according to the pasta package instructions for al dente doneness. Put the lid on the pot and stick around. Half-way through the countdown, grab a wooden spoon or chopstick and quickly stir the pasta (for about 5 seconds). Immediately replace the lid to conserve the heat. Get the rest of your dish ready.
When the timer goes off, your pasta is done—or done enough. Drain* it and add to whatever warmed sauce you have waiting. Combine pasta and sauce over low heat for up to two minutes. Sit down to a perfectly cooked bowl of pasta and know that your carbon footprint is a little smaller than it might have been.
We’d been planning to write up this culinary infàmita for over two years… but we thought we’d save it as a pick-me-up for us and the blog when we’d exhausted all the Italian-American chicken recipes…
If we’d heard back from Harold McGee in the fall of 2006, we’d have had him over for a bowl of pasta.
Maybe now he’ll respond to his fans… In the meantime, we’ll get the water boiling.