Sunday, October 16, 2005

Plain Old Pasta

Most people these days have gone through a few "poor times" when the choice of meal was peanut butter sandwiches or ramen. You can get ramen at eight for a dollar on sale— for as long as you can stand it.

However, just because it's inexpensive doesn't mean it has to be horrible. The perfect pasta is inexpensive as well as long-lasting, a cupboard staple that I've never quite left off loving.

You will need:
A BIG pot. Even— dare I say it— a pasta pot.
Pasta of your choice; I prefer thin spaghetti or wacky mac multicolored pasta
Pepper (optional)
Parmesan or Romano cheese*
Olive oil (optional but highly recommended)
Oregano (optional)

*This is one of the few grocery items where I will not compromise. If you MUST get dried parmesan, get Kraft, since the generic brands are nasty. However, I have found that both for amount and for cost, fresh parmesan is far cheaper than dried, and when tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, will last for months. (Though I will admit that I haven't wrapped it and just left it in the fridge; that's months with regular use until used up.) Months of two or three pasta meals a week for under $10. There's no beating that cost.

The first thing that you do is fill your pot with water, about an inch and a half below the rim. I know that cooking directions say that certain amounts of pasta need certain amounts of water; I am telling you to always err on the side of too much water. Extra water does not hurt the pasta. Boil the water over high heat. There is only one reason to put oil in your pasta water and that is to keep frothing down. A simpler way to keep it from boiling over is to turn the heat down when it starts to boil.

Add your pasta. If you don't know how to measure a proper amount of spaghetti, a typical serving is between a nickel diameter's worth and a quarter diameter's worth (if you're really hungry.) You get better with practice. Add in an indeterminate amount of salt— again, don't worry about adding too much, chances are you'll pull back long before it becomes a problem.

Now here's the pasta secret: You can only tell if it's done by tasting it. Don't throw it against a latex surface, because a) that's gross and b) that's a standard of doneness that went with the era where "bland" was a good description. The cooking time listed on the package will give you a general guideline, but you're going to have to eat some. You're looking for al dente, which means "to the tooth", which is darned near impossible to describe but in reality, you want to have pasta that isn't crunchy but still has to be chewed. If it's sludge, that's unappealing and you've gone too far.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it through a colander and serve it into bowls immediately. (I have learned over the years that plates and pasta are an unnecessary combination. We have several large shallow bowls that are perfect for this sort of thing; a lot of modern stoneware has wide salad bowls that are ideal.) Drizzle some olive oil over the pasta and toss it; add pepper and oregano to taste and toss. Then grate your parmesan with a fine grater over the top— it doesn't take a whole lot— and, once again, toss. Then eat.

If you are a smart shopper, this is a meal that is literally a couple of quarters per person. A little more than ramen, true, but infinitely preferable.

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