Necessary Praise

May 21, 2010 § 2 Comments

Pasta is the prince of food.

In the days since my last post, I have done little else but drink lots of free wine, eaten little else but white bread and white pasta, and gone on long runs/bike rides in the gradually rising summer heat.  So most of the time I am exhausted and brain-fried, in the most sated way, and unable to get it together to make a post.

The other, very exciting deterring factor is the sudden discovery, a couple of nights ago, of the astonishing and totally underrated city of Nîmes.  It’s a small, very old city going back over 2000 years, with lots of Roman architecture from the 12th century, though I believe Romans were in Nîmes as early as Julius Caesar.

It could just be that there’s currently a city-wide, week-long semi-annual party, La Feria de Pentecote, with a much-ignored Catholic reason, but the vibe there is amazing, with lots of families out, mustachioed Franco-Spanish artist-uncles smiling at you in the street, and well-dressed hotties thronging in narrow alleys lined with tapas restaurants and discrete entrances into courtyard bars.

There’s also the bullfighting.  My bullfighting cherry has been popped as of last night, at the majestic coliseum-esque arena in the center of town, thanks to some amazing privileges afforded by the good and very hip folks at Au Diable, many of whom I have developed great warmth for now.  But I shall save all this and my animal rights musings and more about Nîmes for the weekend, when I’ve accrued some good photos to back it all up.

In the meantime, there’s much I want to say about my mounting appreciation for pasta — and my appreciation was already pretty mounted.  Due to the nature of the lodgings and my kitchen limitations, I’ve just been making so much of it, and far from getting fed up, I am more in love with pasta than ever.  It gives you so much energy (especially if you’re carbo-loading), it’s so versatile and vegetarian friendly, it lets the flavors of the preparation shine while contributing a powerful, totally satisfying texture, and most of all, if you know what you’re doing, with very few other ingredients, you can make an interesting, exciting, and princely meal for one instead of a plate of I-am-sad-and-foodless-in-France (which I am not, thanks only in part to pasta).

It doesn’t get more simple than spaghetti aglio è olio (garlic and olive oil), and if you have a decent bottle of extra virgin olive oil and good dry pasta, it can be pretty heavenly, even without dried chilli peppers.  But there are a few things to know about technique, which, if you don’t, can cause much disappointment.  I loved this dish as a teenager, and would always order it when we went out to Italian food, but when I tried to make it at college, it was often a disaster.  It would be bland, the garlic would burn, the pasta would be gross, et cetera.

It wasn’t until I lived briefly in East Harlem with my friend, the wonderful and well-traveled poet Dante Micheaux, that I learned a few tricks.

A small window of simultaneity.

Spaghetti Aglio è Olio — The Eyeballer’s Recipe (makes enough for 1-2)

  • 1/4 pack dry spaghetti
  • a bit more than a 1/4 cup good olive oil
  • coarsely ground fresh black pepper
  • 6-10 cloves garlic, peeled and not-too-finely chopped
  • salt
  • optional frills/variations: crumbled dried red chillies, chopped parsley, fried pancetta/bacon

1. This recipe will be over before you know it, so order is important. Bring salted pasta water to a boil and throw in the pasta.
2. You have about 7-9 minutes till al dente. Put the oil, pepper, garlic in a medium-sized pan. Chillies/bacon can go in now, too.
3. Put the burner on medium-low heat. You want the oil and the other ingredients to heat up together and impart their flavors.
4. That’s pretty much it. Once the oil begins to sizzle, you’re done. Turn off the heat. Don’t cook the garlic.
5. Drain your pasta, add it to the pan, and toss.  Check for salt.  Add parsley if you want.

Tada!  If done right, even this dish can be a revelation.

Can you tell from this picture that the pasta is al dente?

As you can imagine, in all my pasta enthusiasm, I was starting to languish from lack of proper vitamins from fruits and vegetables, but there was little in the way of that at the studio, save the withering half-bunch of asparagus from the homemade mayonnaise meal a few nights ago.  That and lots of butter and cheese.  I was reminded of this amazing-sounding recipe for alfredo sauce in Saveur a few issues ago.  And then I figured, “Well, asparagus seems to go nicely with creamy, lemony things like mayonnaise,” and decided to make some adjustments to the recipe.

Asparagus Alfredo — The Eyeballer’s Recipe (makes enough for 1-2)

  • 1/4 pack short pasta — I used fussili because I figured the shape would go with the asparagus
  • 6-8 spears of asparagus — is it just the top that’s the spear? or the whole thing? I mean the whole thing
  • zest of one lemon
  • juice of half a lemon
  • about 1/2 cup parmesan cheese — finely grated; you want it to melt nicely without getting clumpy
  • a bit more than half a stick of butter
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • optional: couple of tablespoons of whipping cream

1. Wash the asparagus and cut each into 4-5 pieces, maybe just over an inch each. Cut the very bottom off if you don’t like it.
2. Bring your salted pasta water to a boil and dump in the pasta.
3. In a warm medium-sized pan, arrange the butter cut into pats. The pan is not ON the stove.  The butter shouldn’t liquify.
4. When the pasta is just more than halfway done, add the asparagus to the pot, too.
5. Drain your pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water.
6. Add the pasta and asparagus to the butter pan. Top with the grated cheese, black pepper, lemon zest and lemon juice.
7. Toss long and gentle, adding a bit of pasta water as you go, until the cheese is incorporated. Not too much water!
8. That’s all.  Add a bit of cream if you want.  Check for salt.  Top with more cheese.

A tiny bit more melty than it should be.

But it all worked out in the end.

Did I already say al dente?  Al dente.

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