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January 09, 2007

The Pasta Primers - Prologue

Dominic Armato
Okay, I realize that a post that serves no purpose other than to set up future posts is a bit of a cop out, but I'm really jazzed about this. I hope I don't end up being the only one.

One of the most common laments I've heard from those who are enthusiastic about cooking is that they're comfortable following a recipe, but they wish they had the instincts and knowhow to be able to just walk into a grocery store or market, see what looks good and create a recipe on the fly. For years, I've always encouraged these people to cook a lot of pasta. Pasta's the perfect vehicle for honing basic cooking instincts. Great pasta is simple by nature, rarely incorporating more than a few ingredients. Because of this simplicity and emphasis on freshness, ingredient sourcing is of particular importance. Pasta recipes easily lend themselves to adjustment, substitution and improvisation, and though the central themes are simple the variations are endless. The techniques involved aren't overly complicated, but subtle improvements can yield noticeable differences. And perhaps most importantly, even if you screw it up, it's probably going to be edible. That's long been the spiel, but it's time to do something about it. As such, with the Beef-Off in the rear view mirror, 2007's monthly feature will be the Pasta Primers.

Dominic Armato
The syllabus is almost complete, and I'm excited. The Pasta Primers are twelve lessons, each centered around a different recipe, that are designed to teach the basics of preparing pasta. But rather than acting simply as a collection of traditional recipes (though many traditional recipes will be included), the Pasta Primers will be focused on really examining and developing the underlying techniques and skills that can then be applied not only to new, improvised pastas, but to other recipes as well. They'll start off very, very simply, and they'll stay fairly simple through the entire series. But if it works as I hope it will, somebody who works through all twelve lessons should be able to stroll into a grocery story with no plan, and stroll out with the ingredients and knowhow necessary to head home and throw together a pasta they've never made before. And then, in theory, this acts as a jumping-off point for further experimentation and improvisation in the kitchen, outside of the pasta realm.

Dominic Armato
So, once a month, I'll throw up a monster post that starts with a few lessons on ingredient selection and pasta technique and ends with a recipe that utilizes those techniques. And, as an additional bonus that I trust will be both fun and enlightening, my sister-in-law has enthusiastically volunteered to be the Pasta Noob. Like most, she's comfortable following a recipe, but her experience with pasta is fairly limited. So before I post, she'll do each primer herself, and then write a sidebar about her observations and experiences as somebody who is also learning through the primers. Then, at the end of the series, we'll set her loose in a grocery store and see what happens. If the primers have done their job, an abundance of deliciousness will ensue. To give you a taste, here is a list of the twelve pastas... subject to adjustment as I finalize the syllabus:

I - Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peppereroncino
(Spaghetti with Oil, Garlic and Hot Peppers)
VII - Cavatappi con Salsicce e Curcurma
(Cavatappi with Sausage, Raisins and Turmeric Cream)
II - Penne Arrabbiata
(Penne with Spicy Tomato Sauce)
VIII - Fettuccine al Limone
(Fettuccine with Lemon Butter Sauce)
III - Linguine alle Vongole
(Linguine with Clams)
IX - Spaghetti Bolognese
(Spaghetti with Meat Sauce)
IV - Bucatini all'Amatriciana Rossa
(Bucatini with Pancetta and Tomato Sauce)
X - Tonnarelli al Pesto Genovese
(Tonnarelli with Basil Pesto)
V - Ziti al Cavalfiore e Mente
(Ziti with Cauliflower, Mint and Breadcrumbs)
XI - Pappardelle con Asparagi e Noci
(Pappardelle with Asparagus and Walnuts)
VI - Rigatoni con Salsicce e Porcini
(Rigatoni with Pink Sausage and Porcini Sauce)
XII - Ravioli d'Anatra con Burro e Salvia
(Duck Ravioli with Butter and Sage Sauce)

Chapter I soon!


As someone who is still very much a pasta noob, but has had great success with your recipe from "Cooking with Spaff", I am really looking forward to this! :)

Cooking with Spaff!

A fine feature if ever there was one :-)

Actually, you'll be pleased to know that the one I currently have scheduled for Primer VI is basically the same as the recipe I gave to Spaff, except I think the Spaff version was sans sausage. I'd check, but for some odd reason, Mixnmojo seems to have pulled it down while leaving the others up. Hopefully this doesn't indicate they feel my pasta stacks up unfavorably against Tom Sarris' tuna bake.

I thought it sounded familiar :) The Spaff version was with pancetta (though sausage was mentioned as an alternative).

I love the premise, as I - as an amateur gourmet - have the same lack of instinct to attack the market, rather than read off a recipe. I'm looking forward to the challenge and will be reading intently.

The only thing I could beg for in addition would be Pasta Carbonara. It's so bad when it's bad, and so divine when it's good.

Lovely idea for a monthly feature-- I am salivating in anticipation!

Heh... it's funny you should mention that, Linda :-)

Carbonara is one of the adjustments to the syllabus that I'm considering. Currently, even though it's a traditional cornerstone and one that people just love, I left it off because, prep-wise, it's so off in left field. Carbonara is kind of its own beast, and very few pastas are prepared in a similar manner. As such, it's currently on the outs under the logic, again, that I'm trying to focus on flexible techniques rather than specific recipes, and I felt there were other recipes that would be more effective in that regard.

That said, I'm still editing... it may be in there yet :-)

That makes perfect sense to me!

I can't wait to see what the final syllabus will look like-- pasta is always considered exciting around the ol' homestead. The hubs claims to have a special "pasta gland" that lets him eat more of it than any normal human... and he might be right. :)

Is this still coming, or have other responsibilities put it on the back burner?

Hey, K!

It's coming. I'm so excited about it, but things have been so crazy. I'm moving to Baltimore at the end of June (more on this shortly... a temporary move) and while it's easy to go to a restaurant and bang out some thoughts, I get too tied up in wanting to get my recipes just right, so the going's slow and spare time is scarce. I expect to get this going towards the end of the summer. And the fact that I'll be living in the heart of Baltimore's Little Italy for the next two years should only serve to spur me on :-)

I don't want to steal the job to our host but since, as I've been reading, there are a lot of Carbonara lovers around here, I'd suggest a yummy alternative that it's quite popular in Umbria,the place in which I live in Italy (ok, when I can back home for the holydays...you know, Italians are a migrants's people!).
Ok here is the secret: zucchini's flowers (or zucchini's blossom, I don't know which the most appropriate translation is).
Fry some garling in abundant olive oil (extra-virgin!) then add guanciale (but also bacon can be ok). When guanciale is almost done, add the zucchini's flowers (in chunkies after having dropped out the pistil) and cook them just for a few time.
When pasta is done (al dente, as Dominic says), put it in the skillet in which you've cooked guanciale and the flowers and add (as you know) the eggs you've previuosly stirred with salt black pepper and Pecorino cheese.
Be careful: DO NOT keep the skillet over the fire as you are supposed to do with other pasta recipes: if you mix pasta with the souce over the fire the eggs will start to cook, but you want that they remain CREAMY. The residual heat of the skillet is sufficieent in this case.
If you want to taste better zucchini's flowers you can avoid to add the eggs and put only pecorino cheese and a lot of black pepper.
Enjoy...because I can't: here in the Netherlands zucchini's flowers are impossible to find! :-((
P.S. I suggest "short" pasta for this recipe: rigatoni, tortiglioni or even penne are ok.

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