More on that pasta

posted in: Recipes, Ruminations | 11

needs more peas, according to Bittman

It seems (belatedly) that I am not the only one with pasta on the mind. Mark Bittman’s recent article in the Times offered hoards of recipes for pasta lore that I can’t wait to try out sometime soon. But he also touched on a point that I found interesting, and struck at a deeply embedded piece of cultural wisdom that I had never thought to question before: The ratio of grains to delicacies.

Essentially, he argues for drawing back on the amount of pasta on your plate, and loading up on sauces heavily comprised of veggies instead. A simple carb-cutting and vitamin-enriching antidote to the modern vegetable-starved American diet. At the same time though, he concedes that purists of Italian cooking would scoff at his advice, because it attacks certain principles of tradition. For one thing, Italians used to eat with their hands (as did most cultures pre-Middle Ages). But more importantly, eating more pasta and less sauce (meaty or otherwise) means a more economical and thus sensible meal. (As the article glosses over, that is why the Italian American cuisine, rich with meats from the once-deprived immigrants’ awe-struck indulgences, looks so alien to native Italians.) The same prudency can be found across the globe, too, with each region’s plentiful starches. Bread, corn and potatoes elsewhere, for instance. Like the poor in Italy with pasta, if you are an extremely poor person in Asia, your diet will likely consist of rice, with hopefully a little bit of fat for flavor if you can get your hands on it.

True, such scarcity is not an issue for most Americans; even the poor have access to cheap meat and (slightly less cheap) veggies. But there is more to it than that. Chinese children are praised for their obedient eating habits when they willingly eat more rice than main dishes. I was duly regarded by my Chinese relatives for scooping up every last grain of rice from my bowl. That is the way I was taught. “Coarse rice for food, water to drink, and the bended arm for a pillow — happiness may be enjoyed even in these,” went a famous quote from Confucious. When it comes to cooking pasta dishes, I always manage to feel a little pull from another, more ubiquitous phrase, “a little goes a long way.” Meaning, my inner conscious is telling me it is unnecessary and unwise to drown my plate in extravagance. Too much sauce = hedonism. Pretty soon, I will be smoking crack and having orgies every weeknight.

Bittman’s simple philosophy is a bit of an eye-opening revelation for me. I can’t agree more with his call to eating more fresh veggies. Of course he isn’t advocating that we take this piece of advice he’s given for pasta and apply it to the entire realm of cookery, but let us just imagine, for a moment, the possibilities. As much as I’d like to, I’m not sure how I would proceed. His explanation of the relatively vitamin-bereft characteristics of grains such as semolina was not particularly pleasing. Nor was his reminder that carbohydrates, when not used for exercise, are eventually stored as fat (ahem — all of the carbohydrates I eat). So, how to go about this? Will I need to tone down the flavor of sauces? Probably. Too much flavor and saltiness with not enough starch to soak it up with is a bad thing. Seems to be not much of a problem for fresh pasta dishes, since quickly-cooked sauces are less flavorful than slower-cooked ones in the first place. But how in the world would I ever carry over this philosophy with, say, a searing-hot Vindaloo curry? Make a less tasty curry?

I’m lost for the moment. But in the meantime, I’ll be working on the answer…

Except for this recipe! The pasta in the photo above (sorry for not providing it at first, Andy!) was something I had tossed together one evening when I had literally no fresh vegetables in my home. Not a one. I did, however, possess half a frozen package of peas, some sundried tomatoes, cream and garlic, and with those and rigatoni, a very un-Bittmanesque pasta was born.

Creamy Sundried Tomato Rigatoni with Peas
(makes about 2 servings)

1/2 lb rigatoni, cooked and drained
4 or 5 sundried tomatoes (either dried and steeped in hot water for 5 minutes and drained, or the oil-packed variety), coarsely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup frozen peas
1 tablespoon olive oil
freshly ground black pepper to taste
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)

In a large saucepan, heat the oil on medium-high with the garlic until fragrant. Add the sundried tomatoes and stir for a minute or two to incorporate its juices into the oil. Add the cream. Bring mixture just to a boil. Turn to low. Add the peas, rigatoni, pepper and optional red pepper flakes. Toss for another minute or two until sauce has thickened and pasta is coated evenly. Taste for seasoning, adding salt if desired. Serve immediately.

11 Responses

  1. Sarah C.

    First of all, YUM! Great pic and wonderful looking pasta.
    Second, I think that Bittman has a point. Since the day humans adopted agriculture our health has taken a downturn. Sure, since the invention of modern meds everything is seemingly better but the truth of the matter is, we arent built for processed grains. They are the easiest, cheapest, and most filling type of food, but we are primates. How many other animals do you know that survive off of ground up grains? I am guessing few if any examples come to mind.
    As you point out, access to inexpensive fresh meat and produce is no longer an issue in most cases so it isnt necessary to gorge on “filler” foods. I love pasta as much as the next person, but I would personally opt for a saucier dish.

  2. Ann

    Great ruminations!

    You’re so right that lightening up pasta is easy… I do it by tossing a smaller amount of pasta with a LOT of something bulky, but flavorsome, like braised escarole with garlic, red pepper flakes and lemon. Or I make a quick base of shallots sauteed in olive oil, deglaze with wine, add tomatoes and then dump in mussels until they steam open and serve it all over a very small portion (so much smaller than we ever used to consider acceptable) of linguine. Or we serve a “normal” ratio of pasta to sauce as a small starter.

    As for more challenging dishes like your example of a Vindaloo… I wouldn’t be willing to compromise on cooking methods, but I’d be willing to compromise on portion size. 🙂

  3. cathy

    Sarah C: thanks! And whoops, didn’t mean to sound as if I disagreed with Bittman’s idea. I think it’s terrific, too — so much that I wish it could also work with other foods, too!

    Ann: You’re right, easing up on portions is probably best. Thanks!

  4. Andy Deemer

    Cathy —

    – where is the recipe for that pea pasta? you tease so!!!! it looks amazing

    – where is the search on the site!?!?!? I only just needed it for the first time (for the peas etc in pasta!!!!) and couldn’t find it!

    (and thanks for being a continuing source of amazing epicurian additions to both my kitchen and life)

  5. cathy

    Hi Andy: Sorry for the teaser! I guess I felt this recipe was shamefully simple and thus not important enough to post, but it was actually very yummy, so I just posted it. Hope you enjoy. And oops, I never thought I’d need a search on this site, but now that you mention it, I probably should…

  6. Charise

    This is something I’ve been inadvertently doing for quite a while. I’m only cooking for two (well, usually 3 so I have enough for lunch the next day). Since most recipes are for twice that many servings, we’ll often cut the amount of pasta and protein in half but leave the amount of vegetables/spices/sauce the same as in the original recipe. We like the bigger flavor punch, and can always use more veggies, right?

  7. Heather

    Well I love lots of sauce and veggies with my pasta. My husband calls my spaghetti soup! I found out how sparse sauce is in authentic Italian cooking when my husband and I went out for some Italian cuisine. Boy, was I disappointed when I paid $30 for penne pasta with barely any sauce. I asked for more sauce and the waiter turned his nose at me and explained that it was not authentic. But I got my sauce!

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