« Contigo Peru | Main | Birrieria Zaragoza »

September 11, 2010

Moral Imperative

Tagliatelle Fiori di Zucca Dominic Armato

Here's the thing about zucchini blossoms:

Sometimes you find a pile of them that's completely irresistible. And sometimes you build your dinner plans around them. And sometimes your dinner plans fall apart. And sometimes you come across them in the fridge at 10:30 at night. And sometimes you know they just won't be quite the same tomorrow. And sometimes you just have to make some fresh pasta for them on the spot.

This happens, right?


A recipe for us, Dom?

Yyyyyyeah.... probably should've been taking notes.

Just sauteed up the blossoms in butter with a little pinch of saffron and a lot of salt and tossed it with some fresh tagliatelle. Nothing fancy.

I freaking love that you can just "make some fresh pasta" for them. Or did you already have it in the fridge? I just have this image of you going "@#%*it where is my 00 flour and the roller?". And then slapping around the eggs for giving you lip.

I may have been playing a lot of Mafia II. Probably not relevant.

I'm not sure why fresh pasta intimidates people so much. It requires a little bit of time and elbow grease, but it's a whole two ingredients. I don't even use doppio zero. Whatever all-purpose flour is in the cupboard, a couple of eggs... done. You just have to be willing to work it. And work it. And work it. And work it.

No seasoning (other than S&P) other than the saffron? Interesting. I might have thrown some herbs in there, maybe some garlic, and probably some anchovies for the oil/salt.

My current Facebook profile picture is me making fresh pasta with my 2 year old. It couldn't be easier, really. The only reason I don't do it more (and I do it about once a month), I tend to be a tad messy as a cook and I end up cleaning flour off the flour and couner for awhile.

Anon Man... Too busy for my tastes. At least in this instance. When it comes to something like zucchini blossoms, they're too lovely with just a little butter and cheese, and too easy to completely obliterate. It's fresh pasta with a very delicate centerpiece ingredient. Less is more.

I hear you. But there's something about the anchovies with zucchini blossoms that are such a perfect combination. One fillet, chopped, and melted with the butter, would be mind blowing. More important question, where did you get blossoms this late in the year? I can't find them at any of the farmers' markets after early July, at the latest.

If you can figure out the growing seasons in Arizona, let me know, because I sure can't.

"This happens, right?"

Not to me, although I think I'd like it to.

I've been reading your blog for a while and have been wanting to reply to Evil is Semi-Homemade, but my post would fit just as well here.

I'm discovering that the food that I've been eating my whole life isn't actually food. It looks like food. People use food names to refer to it. I buy it from places that tell me that their food is delicious and will make me happy. And I've been shrugging my shoulders and stuffing it in my face.

But then I started watching Top Chef and trying to imitate some of the stuff in the kitchen. And then I grabbed an organic orange at the store instead of a regular one. And then my neighbor planted tomatoes in our backyard and said I could take some whenever I wanted. And then my friend gave me some fresh herbs from his garden.

Yup, I've been lied to.

I'd like to be cooking and eating food rather than stuff that is just food-ish. The difficulty I'm finding is that the signal to noise ratio for recipes on the internet is incredibly skewed toward long, arcane ingredient lists followed by sparse, cryptic instructions followed by comments from 6 people saying "Yummers!", 8 people telling the author why their recipe is terrible, and 4 bots advertising May-December dating sites.

Flour, eggs, and elbow grease? Awesome. I'm on board. Except I don't know what - specifically - you mean by elbow grease.

So, in what I hope is a respectful way, I'd like to call you out on the whole "I'll send you a similar recipe that's just as easy for the true novice" thing. I've never had a piece of cooked fish that I've enjoyed - maybe something along the lines of "wrapping a good piece of fish in foil with a little oil and butter, some garlic, a couple of spices and some greens"?

If you could post something like that with quantities and instructions and respond when I (and maybe other people) ask ridiculous questions such as:

...How tight do you wrap the foil?

Do you put the oil and butter directly on the fish?

If it's in my oven wrapped in foil, how can I tell if it's done?...

you could potentially help a lot of people take at least one step away from the Dark Side.

In any event, thanks for writing and sharing. I find your commentary and insights on Top Chef as interesting as the show itself.

Brian: My thoughts (frustrations!) exactly! People who routinely COOK do not know how simple things like how to do something intimidate the rest of us. I have asked for recipes, and get told, "Oh just mix x with y and then z and voila!" How much x, y, and z? Even proportions would help (2 parts x to 1 part y and z), but somehow the gifted (or the brave) forget those simple things.

I just took out the middleman two nights: turned zucchini into a zucchini 'fettuccine'. I love my own cooking, but yours always looks fantastic! Great stuff, Dom.


Congratulations on your food awakening! :-)

I completely understand your frustration, and frankly one of the projects that I've long thought about working on is exactly that... simple recipes for *real* food geared towards people with little cooking experience. The food lover's response to Sandra Lee and the new Food Network, if you will. It's probably been done. But judging from the number of people who ask, it isn't finding its audience.

Historically, if you look through the recipes I've posted (though I've gotten away from that recently), I've always kind of tried to write them for the full spectrum of abilities, including both overly descriptive instructions and vague addenda that aren't critical to making it work but will be meaningful to those with more cooking experience. But it's difficult (if not impossible) to really meet the needs of both audiences at the same time.

This is something I've been thinking about for a couple of years, though. At one point, I even considered doing a regular feature... taking one of Sandra Lee's recipes that week and writing up a recipe for a similar dish that's just as easy but doesn't rely on preprocessed and prepackaged stuff. But that would mean I'd have to watch Sandra Lee.

Anyway, I've wanted to do exactly that for quite some time. And with an essentially unlimited capacity for helpful photos and such, a blog seems particularly well-suited to the purpose. Let me think about how I might do it and see if I can float a trial balloon sometime in the next few weeks.

Dom, I love the semi-homemade redux idea. If you can't stomach watching her (or can't find people with stronger stomachs to watch it for you), try the FoodTV website and search by "chef" or by show. It should pull her up.

Let me also suggest to your newbies a way that I picked up cooking technique when I first got into cooking: read cookbooks (good ones), and watch a few cooking shows, usually the ones on PBS, as opposed to the craptastic ones on FoodTV.

When learning to cook, I found it comforting to follow a recipe as precisely as possible, so as to feel comfortable with what I was doing, and cookbooks by non-TV stars were really helpful in that regard. Joy of Cooking is a standard, and there are others. You could also read Ruhlman's books, although he tends to be a bit pompous and assume that people know a lot of things that they might not. Once you master a few of them, then you'll realize, for instance, that you don't need to measure out the exact amount of oil to saute something, just have a rough idea of the amount, and you'll learn that if you have ingredient X handy, ingredient Y is a good substitute. I think people who cook a lot have a tendency to downplay the value that well written recipes can play in teaching cooking (Ruhlman is actually part of this problem), but they are very useful when reaching new people.


I am in the "can't really cook" group amongst your readers and I would like to sing the praises of your "10 commandments of dry pasta." Since reading that post and implementing it, the past a I make at home has improved a hundred-fold and my older son now disdains anyone's pasta but mine. That post was exactly what a non-cook needed -- clear instructions and reasons about what seems to be a very simple process.


Have you guys seen her new show on Food Network? It's aimed toward saving people money, which makes it nearly the antithesis of Semi-homemade. She chops whole onions! And grates cheese herself!

....it's still horrible, of course, but if that show had come first I might have a slight bit less hatred toward her.

I think 'America's Test Kitchen' on PBS is a great place to start for new cooks. They make it easy for home cooks without dumbing it down; Christopher Kimball's "The Cook's Bible" is also a great resource for beginning chefs (though I do think he tends to be a little too rigid on what he considers the 'best' method/recipe).

Mark Bittman does some videos of recipes on the New York Times website that are helpful in demonstrating some recipes.

I also like his cookbook, becuase he gives lots of variations for every recipe. I dont' have it in front of me right now, so my examples may not be accurate, but the idea is he'll give a detailed recipe for one thing, like split pea and ham soup. Then he'll give a list of possible substitutions, like cannelli beans and sausage. Or he'll give you the recipe for "basic tomato sauce" and then give you 15 things you could add to it, with quantities. It starts to give you an idea of what parts are fundamental to a dish, and what you can play with.

I can't exactly just whip up some home made pasta like you can, but the zucchini in the garden is giving me some glorious blossoms to ponder. I may have to cheat on the pasta but love the recipe idea. Thanks!

Do organic oranges really taste better than non-organic? I've been keeping a mental list of foodstuffs where I can actually taste a difference. I haven't tried oranges, but just about the only food where I've noticed a difference are apples. Seasonality & freshness seem to matter a lot more than being organic. Grass fed beef makes a difference, too, but not organic beef.

I'll second IG's recommendation for Test Kitchen and the cookbooks they put out as a nice start for young chefs. If operating from the starting assumption that a detailed recipe will help ease a newbie through learning to cook, they provide very detailed explanations of what they are doing and why.* Kimball can come across like SNL's "Anal Retentive Chef", which may be off-putting to some, but if you're looking for authoritative hand-holding, then that's a good place to start. And, at the risk of being a heretic, I actually think Keller's three cookbooks have some of this too. Sure, the dishes are way more complicated in the number of steps, and the amount of fussiness may be too much for the true newbie, but the guy has a full page description on how to cut onions for soup, as an example.

@IG, I agree that Organic meats tend not taste much better, but the hormone-free part of it makes it worth it, at least for me. I'm actually 50/50 on many Organic vegetables. Sure, they are great in theory, but picking worms off a haul from Balducci's is annoying.

*I concede that while I found this approach useful many years ago, others may benefit from trial and error.

*I concede that while I found this approach useful many years ago, others may benefit from trial and error.

Very true. My favorite 'lesson' remains

It was one of those 'Eureka!' moments - I had dinner at an Italian restaurant, and realized that this was the first time I'd ever had real gnocchi. Light, airy, dressed with just a little olive oil, shaved parmesan, and some herbs... It was so completely different from the vacuum-packed nuggets they sell in supermarkets.

The next weekend, I bought a sack of potatoes, downloaded & printed about a dozen different recipes, and started trying them out. I'd never made pasta in my entire life. I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing. I made a huge mess that left my entire kitchen & dining room covered in a layer of flower. I burned my hands pretty badly. My first half-dozen batches were godawful. I must have eaten about 10 lbs of pasta in the span of about 2 hours.

I didn't care.

I just kept pressing onwards, ignoring every failure with the determination of the clinically insane. In truth, I never truly succeeded - eventually my technique improved, and I can now churn out some decent gnocchi in a few minutes, but I could never quite get that perfect texture. I would squeeze too hard, or there would be too much water in the potatoes, or... something. Sometimes I came close, but I could never get it exactly right.

It didn't matter though. Even with the failure, I learned more in that single day than I had in years of reading recipes before then.

I agree with the recommendation for Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything." It's full of simple "starter" recipes, but as Kat said above, guides you painlessly into improvising with its lists of additions and substitutions. It's become my go-to book because I get a weekly delivery of organic produce from a farm not far from here (year-round community-supported agriculture -- one of the perks of living in the Bay area). Every time I find a pile of something in the box I'm not used to purchasing or preparing, Bittman's book can always tell me something tasty to do with it.

I'm also a big fan of Cooks Illustrated magazine, which goes into LOTS of detail. CI usually precedes its recipes with an explanation of how the ingredients are interacting in the recipe and why the method given in the recipe works the best, and that really helps. Once you understand how a particular ingredient behaves and why, it makes improvising with it much less intimadating.

@IG: I'm no authority, but every time I eat a regular orange now I think, "Oh, right - that's why I don't eat these". The organic oranges I get from Henry's are smaller, uglier, juicier, and far more flavorful than the regular ones. Organic doesn't necessarily mean better - you can get a bad organic anything - but I've found with oranges it's pretty easy to sort out the subpar ones. Conventionally grown seems to lead to a uniform, reliable quality of meh. If I absolutely had to buy an orange on any given day, the regular might be the better choice. Since I never absolutely have to buy oranges, when the organics don't look good I buy something else. Which might be what you mean by the seasonality and freshness thing. I'm a native San Diegan, the only seasons I have extensive experience with are football and baseball.

Cliff notes: In my experience, organic orange = higher quality ceiling.

@Dom: Great, I'm glad that you've been thinking about it and that other people seem interested as well. Looked over the recipes on the site and the one other suggestion/request I have would be to keep it as simple in regard to equipment as you do technique. Other than that, I'll just look forward to the awesome.

I'd also add Alex Guarnaschelli's Food Network show (The Cooking Loft?) as a resource, on Saturdays, I believe. My cooking experience has mostly been through trial & error my entire life, starting by the time I entered double digits - believe me, I've had as many failures as successes. But I learn. My first pasta was a disaster, but since then, great (point: allow yourself the learning experience). And I agree with some other postings that following a good recipe is a good start. You can always make changes to suit yourself later, but particularly with baked foods, stick to the recipe until you're comfortable to change it.

And dang, I want those zucchini blossoms!!! The weather here has been yoyo-esque. I've had next to no ripe tomatoes & it's mid-September! The beefsteaks are puny (but they slice like beefsteaks, look like beefsteaks once sliced & taste like beefsteaks, and there are more of them on the plant than usual, so I guess I can't complain) ... but to have only harvested about a dozen cherry tomatoes at this point in the year? With so many more on the plant? Weirdness.

The comments to this entry are closed.