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In Praise of Pasta

James Beard

December 04, 2018

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Bolognese Photo and Styling Judy Kim
Photo and Food Styling: Judy Kim

In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to the pleasures of pasta, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: In Praise of Pasta

It’s odd how when you’re in Italy no meal seems complete without pasta, yet here we’re so apt to forget what a wonderfully simple, variable food it is. In these days of rush and hurry, a dish of pasta can be made in nothing flat, and with an elegant sauce, salad, and maybe cheese and fresh fruit you have an exceptionally good dinner.

For more than six hundred years, pasta, made from the purest and simplest of ingredients—fine wheat and water—has been a staple of the diet of people in many countries, and in all that time its manufacture has stuck pretty consistently to the classic formula and the end result has been something to savor. 

Certain things have been added to pasta—artichoke flour; tomato, spinach, and carrot to add color and flavor; eggs to produce the golden noodles of the Central Europeans—but these are incidentals. Generally speaking, pasta is made from hard wheat, the finest from durum wheat, which is high in gluten, or wheat protein, a substance that gives pasta its natural bite and firmness of shape and texture. At various times attempts have been made to produce it from other things, but the results have found little acceptance with lovers of good pasta.

Lately though, there have been disturbing signs that pasta in the future may not be what it was in the past. There’s a new FDA ruling that permits a change in ingredient standards, and a major food company is coming out with a type of macaroni for school lunch programs that is “enriched” by the addition of corn and soy flours, with a little more than one-third wheat. To me that just isn’t pasta. I find it rather shocking that a food that has been a tradition in our lives for so long can suddenly become something quite different, with a different color, taste, and consistency, no longer the archetypal product. Nothing, as far as I’m concerned, can ever take the place of honest pasta made from honest wheat, and when it comes to adding protein, I’d rather eat my pasta with meat sauce or grated cheese, in the usual way, instead of getting it through soy.

I like to know what to expect from the food I buy, and I have always found our commercial packaged pastas to be steadily dependable in constant use, never varying in flavor and quality, good, inexpensive, and easy to cook, if you follow the directions on the box, although for my taste they tend to overestimate the cooking time. I like my pasta to be what the Italians call al dente (to the tooth), or with a little bite to it, not mushy or soft. Test it by fishing a piece from the water and biting to see if it is cooked to your taste.

I love pasta, and I use a great deal of it, from the tiniest pastina and orzo (which is shaped rather like a large grain of rice) up to lasagna and the huge seashells and rigatoni. It’s such fun to play around with all the different shapes and sizes—the little wagon wheels and butterflies, the long thin strips of spaghetti and tagliatelle, and the lovely thin broad noodles.

I cook orzo until it is just tender, toss it with butter and sometimes a little grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, and serve it with grilled foods or a stew instead of potatoes or noodles or rice. It has a nice texture, excellent flavor, and makes a great sauce sopper-upper.

I cook a lot of the thin spaghettini, too. Sometimes I have it with a quick clam sauce or one made with fresh tomatoes simmered in butter with a touch of garlic and basil, or that glorious summer mixture called pesto—fresh basil, parsley, pine nuts, and oil ground to a paste that turns the pasta the more beautiful green as you eat it. Or I might sauce it very simply by soaking chopped garlic in warm olive oil for a few minutes and tossing it with the pasta. This is one of my great favorites.

If you are feeling extravagant, canned white truffles, shredded and tossed in butter, are wonderful with fettuccine or spaghettini, but just melted butter and freshly grated cheese tastes awfully good, too. All of these can be done in minutes and make a most satisfying meal. I hold no brief for those elaborate sauces that take forever to cook. When anyone tells me he has a marvelous spaghetti sauce that takes three days to make, I run screaming because I know only too well that is it going to be over-seasoned, overtomatoed, and overrich.

To me there’s nothing better than to take pasta, be it noodles, spaghettini, seashells, orzo, or what you will, blanch it for about 5 minutes in boiling salted water, drain it, and then cook it in the rich boiling chicken stock until done to taste. Serve it in bowls with plenty of the broth, a little grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, and a springling of freshly chopped parsley. It’s the kind of dish you’ll be hungry for when nothing else in the food line seems to appeal to you.

If you like a good meat sauce for your pasta, probably the most famous is the one the Italians call Ragú Bolognese. Cut 1/2 pound bacon into very small pieces, and cook it gently in a saucepan with 2 tablespoons butter. Add 2 finely chopped or shredded carrots, 2 finely chopped medium-sized onions, and 2 finely chopped ribs of celery. Brown lightly, then add 1 pound lean ground beef, breaking it up with a fork so it browns evenly.  Then add ½ pound chicken livers, trimmed of all membrane and chopped. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then mix in 1/4 cup concentrated tomato paste and 1 cup rather dry white wine. Season with 1 teaspoon or more salt, 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and a generous pinch of nutmeg. Add 1 1/2 cups broth (chicken, beef, or broth made from a bouillon cube), cover the pan, and simmer very, very gently for 40 minutes. 

Uncover, check the seasoning, and stir in 1 cup heavy cream—this is optional; some people prefer the sauce as it is, other like the cream flavor. Heat for a minute. I always add a good tablespoon of chopped parsley, and I have been known to put in a finely chopped garlic clove. You can add such things to the basic sauce at your discretion.

This sauce Bolognese is good on spaghetti, macaroni, or any pasta, and for lasagna. Alternate in a baking dish a layer of the sauce, a layer of freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, and repeat the layers in that order until the dish is full, ending with béchamel sauce. Top with a heavy grating of Parmesan cheese, and bake in a 350-degree oven until the cheese has melted and the sauce is brown and bubbly.

The other day I went to a luncheon where pasta was featured, and we tasted a tremendous variety of dishes, one of which I’d like to share with you because it was such a lovely flavorful mixture—an adaptation of the Greek pastitsio: 

To make this version of pastitsio, first cube 1 large (1 ½ pounds) or 2 smallish eggplants and sprinkle with salt. Sauté in 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil until delicately brown, shaking the pan well and turning the cubes with a wooden spatula. Drain on paper towels. Parboil and slice 1 pound of Italian sausages, such as cotechino or langanicaa, sold in Italian markets and some supermarkets, or substitute good, not too fat, sausage meat, thinly slices and browned and well drained. (If you can’t get highly flavored sausage, add a chopped clove or two of garlic or a little sautéed onion.) Combine the sausage and eggplant.

Cook 1 pound of ziti, a very large version of macaroni, in about 4 to 5 quarts of very well salted boiling water, uncovered. Stir occasionally, because pasta loves to stick to the bottom of the pan. Cook until just tender to your taste, then drain in a colander.

Meanwhile, make the béchamel sauce. Melt 1/3 cup butter in a pan, blend in 1/3 cup flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/8 to ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Cook until it bubbles, to cook the flour thoroughly, then very gradually add 3 cups hot milk. Stir over medium heat until thickened, let simmer for several minutes, and then stir in another cup of hot milk or ½ cup heavy cream.

You will also need three Italian cheeses—grated Parmesan. Thinly sliced mozzarella, and a 1-pound container of skim-milk ricotta.

Take a 9-by-13- or 14-inch baking pan, the type you would use for a lasagna, and cover the bottom with a layer of sauce. Then add the ziti, half the sausage-eggplant mixture, more sauce then a little Parmesan, some ricotta, more sauce, the rest of the ziti and eggplant mixture, another layer of sauce, more Parmesan and ricotta, and top it all with slices of mozzarella. Bake in a 375-degree oven from 30 to 40 minutes. Do not overbake. It should have a nice moist quality.

Served with a green salad, this makes a good hearty dinner or supper, or an excellent buffet dish for a party.

Read more essays from Beard on Food.