In the beginning, in the days before the minivan and the mini-mart, Alton tells us, the pantry was insurance against starvation. Its dried, cured and canned provender offered a refuge from seasonal market inconsistencies, like bonds in a bear market. Today the pantry is still the culinary port in a storm, a kind of secret garden. Many people allow their panties to become dilapidated refuges for half empty boxes of power bars and cans that date to the Carter administration. But the pantry doesn’t have to be this way, its shabby state is reversible and it can once again be the source of... Good Eats!
Pasta is as basic as it is beloved. Schoolchildren learn that Marco Polo spread it around the world like “a vermicelli bearing Johnny Appleseed.” But this is not likely true. According to anthropologist Amy Trubeck, noodles were known in China as long ago as 1000AD. No one really knows where they started, but they soon appeared in China, Japan, Thailand, Afghanistan, and of course Italy. Wheat is a starchy dietary staple, but before noodles it was mostly used for gruel – simple boiled grain. Noodles were an improvement and offered advantages: they can be cooked over a fire. At a time when the oven was new and rare, that was important. All that the cook needed was a pot, some water, and a little firewood. Recent trends have lavished copious attention on the sauce while allowing the pasta to languish. Alton believes this is wrong.
Somewhere in Italy, Alton pulls up on his motorcycle. Here in the land of pasta, Alton discusses the types of pasta. First he talks about dry and fresh pasta. Surprisingly, neither is superior to the other. They’re just different. Fresh pasta tends to soak up sauce while dry pasta carries sauce. The right choice depends on the recipe and personal preference.
In Italy pasta is like Little League – every town has its shape; hundreds of shapes exist and telling them apart can be a tedious exercise. Fortunately Alton has some tips. He breaks pasta down into five broad categories. Alton makes sure his pantry contains at least one representative from each category at all times.
- Strings, including vermicelli, spaghetti, capellini and fedelini. Alton prefers spaghetti, his choice for olive oil based sauces
- Ribbons, including linguini, fettuccini, tagliatelle and bavette. Alton uses these for butter and cream sauces, preferring fettuccini.
- Tubes, including penne rigata, tubetti, ziti, rigatoni, tortiglioni and mostaccioli. These work well for heavy sauces like the cheese sauce in macaroni and cheese; Alton keeps penne rigata on hand.
- Shapes, including dischetti, fasili, farfalle, orchiette and radiatore. The choice here is more personal preference than anything else; Alton recommends deeper grooves to hang onto sauces better. Alton’s pantry holds radiatore.
- Micropasta such as orzo. Alton uses these only for broths and soups.
Discounting colorants like squid ink or spinach, paste is generally all made from the same simple dough: a mixture of water and a flour called semolina, which is made from a hard wheat called durum. Once, the heel of the “boot” of Italy produced the finest durum but that has changed. Now high quality durum grows in South Dakota. Even some Italian pasta makers buy their wheat from South Dakota. All you might be getting from that Italian maker is a high price and a fancy name on the box.
Alton visits Florence Gourmet, Inc in San Francisco to learn more. There he sees durum dough made and learns that durum contains a lot of protein and has large grains that discourage the release of starch into the cooking water. These traits combine to yield excellent dry noodles. Long thin noodles like fettuccini are cut from sheets, while tubes are extruded through dies. Durum dough is tough and abrasive; it eventually destroys brass dies. The discovery of Teflon with its low coefficient of friction changed this; the hard material permitted longer lasting dies and faster extrusion speeds. But the finished product was much smoother. Lacking the texture of the brass die extruded product, the new noodles did not pick up sauces as effectively. A few companies, like Florence Gourmet, elected to return to the brass dies to produce a rougher textured product.
Armed with new knowledge, Alton returns to his kitchen to prepare some pasta. Pasta needs a lot of water, Alton says. He uses at least a gallon. If he’s making a pound of pasta (enough for about four diners) he uses a full six quarts. That means a large pot and lid; Alton recommends commercial grade aluminum, available inexpensively from restaurant supply stores. Large pots have a great many uses but keep them away from acid. Acidic foods like tomato sauce may discolor aluminum.
Alton starts with hot tap water and puts it over high heat. He salts it generously – a teaspoon per quart of water. Salting the water permits the salt to enter the insides of hollow shapes, something that cannot happen after cooking. Alton’s cooking water tastes like sea water; this is a general rule of thumb for starches. And never, Alton warns, add oil to the water. Most of it will float uselessly on the surface; what does get on the pasta will only make it harder for sauce to stick.
While Alton’s water is coming to a boil (it may take as long as twenty minutes), he discusses pasta storage. Its indefinite shelf life makes pasta a pantry stalwart, but three things will ruin it: air, light, and creatures. Alton keeps his pasta in a tin container to protect it from all three hazards.
Once the water is boiling, Alton gently fans his pasta in and then uses a pair of tongs to push the strands under the water. Nearby, “anti-Alton” breaks his pasta in half and jams it into a much smaller pot. Alton stirs his pasta gently for thirty seconds or so; stirring is best done before the noodles soften. Then Alton covers his pot and turns the heat down just a little to discourage boil overs. A small amount of starch escapes the noodles and floats to the surface where it increases surface tension. That allows bubbles to stack higher and that’s a boil over. The best way to discourage this is to keep an eye on the pot and the heat and use the right size pot and the right amount of water.
What’s the right cooking time? Well, says Alton, that depends on the shape and size of the pasta. You can walk away from long noodles for 3-4 minutes but past that point you must watch and taste for best results. That’s it – there’s no mystery. When the strand stretches like a rubber band it is close to done. It is past the springy point but still possibly in the chewy point where it sticks to teeth. Taste it to learn for sure.
While Alton’s noodles finish cooking he visits a party in “Suburbia” to find the correct colander. He chooses a model with slots to empty water quickly and a wide, stable bottom. Oh, yes, and a lid to make shaking easy. Colander in hand, Alton evades other partygoers to escape with his prize.
Although Don Quixote supposedly said, “Hunger is the best sauce,” Alton prefers something more substantial. He calls it an “anti-sauce” that is thrown together from other pantry residents: capers, sun-dried tomatoes, red peppers, anchovies, every olive, nuts, asiago cheese, gorgonzola cheese, garlic, canned artichokes and smoked oysters. He doesn’t use them all in the same sauce, but they’re the foundation of many sauces.
For this batch, Alton starts with some extra virgin olive oil. This is oil from the first pressing (usually it is cold-pressed) of the olives. It is fruity and has little acid (typically less than one percent). Subsequent pressings yield virgin oil, and lighter oils, that are sometimes blended; the first pressing oils are the most expensive. Oils from later pressings have a higher smoke point and so may be used for frying and other heated cooking; extra virgin oils have low smoke points and must be watched carefully.
Alton’s noodles have just a little resistance left in them; this is al dente. Slightly underdone, this is when to remove the noodles. They’ll carry over (cook a little longer) in the colander. Anti-alton returns to remove his pasta; it’s a nasty, clumpy mess.
Washing pasta removes starch that sauces cling to; don’t do it unless you plan to refrigerate the pasta for later use. Alton puts olive oil and some raw garlic in a large bowl and then tosses his pasta until every strand is coated. While tossing he adds cheese, sundried tomatoes, nuts and a few grinds of black pepper. The pasta is properly tossed when there is no oil in the bowl.
Pasta cookbooks offer advice about how pasta should be eaten. Alton disdains this, even (late at night) relying on fingers. The best approach is whatever works well for you. And the most important thing to remember is to keep pasta in your pantry. Sophia Loren once told reporters, “Everything you see, I owe to pasta.” It’s hard to find a better endorsement for pasta than that.