Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Going Italian

Ah, Italian food. Whenever I get a little tired of fish sauce or soy sauce, I can just readjust my attention to tomatoes, basil and garlic. Rather than noodles, I can have pasta. Olive oil goes into the pan, not peanut oil, and one sautes rather than stir-frying. Well, ok, maybe the differences between some of these things are judgement calls, but Italian food is a good way of satisfying myself when I want "normal" food.

The first recipe I cooked from Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks Dinner was fettuccini carbonara. I thought it worked out well, but there were a couple of things I wanted to tweak. I got my chance to do that recently when I used Bittman's recipe for "Pasta alla Gricia," which is the base recipe from which the carbonara recipe "deviates." The interesting thing was that my tweaking didn't make any difference. I substituted regular olive oil for extra virgin olive oil because I thought the extra virgin olive burned and gave the carbonara a bitter undertone. Apparently the oil was not the culprit, because the pasta alla gricia had the same taste. Perhaps I cooked the pancetta too hard and too long? Pasta alla gricia is a simple dish (which is what attracted me to it on the night in question); cook the pancetta and pasta, combine them, then serve after stirring in some Pecorino Romano cheese. This was the first time I'd cooked with Pecorino Romano cheese and that, too, seemed somewhat bitter to me (though I'm the first to admit I'm not the world's biggest cheese fan).

The other night, I was looking for another simple pasta recipe. This time I used Anne Casale's Italian Family Cooking. I settled upon "Bucatini with Plain Tomato Sauce," although I used spinach fettuccini for it as well (it was the pasta I had in the house). For the sauce, one slowly sautes half a cup of chopped onion in a blend of two tablespoons each of olive oil and butter until soft but not brown. Add two large garlic cloves, halved, and again saute until soft but not brown. Add a 28 ounce can of crushed concentrated tomatoes, one and a half tablespoons of minced fresh basil, half a teaspoon of sugar and one teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down to low and let simmer, partially covered, for about 25 minutes. Casale recommends lots of stirring during these stages of sauce creation, but I stirred only occasionally and it didn't seem to hurt the end result. After the 25 minutes are up, let the sauce rest for an hour before cooking the pasta. I just cooked the pasta and dumped the sauce on top of it, although Casale gives slightly more involved directions for how to combine pasta and sauce.

This was very tasty. The sauce was mild and tomatoey (just what you want this time of year) and was very easy to make. The onions give it a bit more depth, but still make it sweet rather than spicy. This would be easy to tweak in various directions, as well. There was plenty for leftovers the next day. With results like this, I'm definitely emboldened to try Italian cooking on a more consistent basis in the future.

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