May. 11th, 2011

flewellyn: (Default)
So, today, I'm gonna share a few tips friend Lynn gave me on cooking pasta that make it taste amazingly good. I thought, growing up in my family, that I knew pasta. Turns out I did...mostly.

But! There are a few small things you can do when making pasta, and a pasta-based dish, that go a long long way towards making the dish taste, feel, and look more like a restaurant-quality dish. Turns out that most of the fanciness (and schmanciness) of restaurant pasta is due to these simple tricks.

Trick one is to always salt the water. I used to forgo salt because of my dad's tendency to oversalt things. But, it turns out a little bit of kosher salt in the water, say, a palmful per pound of long pasta, or two pounds of short, makes a big difference. It not only keeps it from sticking together, but also imparts a nice flavor. Pasta by itself is rather bland, and this helps season it. Kosher salt is preferable because it has a cleaner taste than table salt, of course.

Second trick: don't cook the pasta until al dente in the pot. At least, not if you are going to mix it in with a pan sauce of any kind; a "pan sauce" could even just be some butter, or olive oil and garlic, or something. In fact, there's a recipe called "Spaghetti olio e aglio" which is just that: spaghetti with olive oil and garlic. Simple stuff, but oh so good, and here's the trick: about a minute before the pasta would be al dente, take it out of the pot, and put it in the pan with the sauce. Let it finish cooking in there. This gets more of the sauce flavor into the pasta.

Final trick: save some of the pasta water and put it in the sauce pan. Seriously! That salty, starchy water is a great addition, because it helps to not only finish cooking the noodles, but the starch helps bind the sauce together. If your sauce combines water-based and oil-based ingredients, like most do, then the starch will act as a binder, and keep them from separating. Also, it imparts a wonderful smoothness to the sauce.

I've been experimenting with these techniques with recipes I know already, some of which I've posted here, like Mint Chicken. Works very well! But, tonight I got experimental. I decided to try inventing something new. Well, new to me, I can't vouch for its complete originality.

I was having friend Hollee over, and wanted to make dinner. I had some chicken, some tortellini, and some vague thoughts of how to proceed. A few flashes of inspiration later, and...

Tortellini with Chicken and Mushroom Sauce

Some of the ingredients are obvious, but let's go down the list anyway:
  • Chicken, or turkey if you prefer. I used 1.25 pounds.

  • Mushrooms, sliced. I used regular button mushrooms, about 1/2 pound.

  • Tortellini. These can be homemade if you really want to, and if you do make your own, more power to you. I do not. I used frozen, a 3 pound bag.

  • Butter, 1 stick. Yes, really, the whole stick.

  • Garlic, minced. You can use preminced if you want (I did). Two tablespoons worth.

  • Flour. I used Wondra, which is great for sauces. I didn't measure exactly, but it was probably about 1/4 cup.

  • White wine. It can be cooking wine, which is just fine. 1 cup.
  • Your spices: basil, oregano, and pepper. Didn't measure these exactly, either, but I would estimate the pepper to be about half a tablespoon. The basil and oregano are definitely "to taste", but apply liberally. It would be hard to go overboard with them.

  • Optionally, some water, if you think the sauce thickens too early.
Equipment needs are pretty simple: noodle pot, large skillet, measuring cup, a dish, a cutting board, knife, some spoons. You probably have these.

So, first thing, cut up the chicken. It should be in small chunks. Then, get the dish and pour in the flour. Mix into the flour the pepper, basil, and oregano. Coat the chicken chunks with this flour-spice mixture, and set the dish with them aside.

Get the skillet hot and melt the butter in it. When the butter is melted, add a tablespoon of garlic and the mushrooms. Cook the mushrooms on medium to medium-high heat, to avoid burning the garlic: roasted garlic is tasty, but burnt is bitter and nasty. This part will take about five minutes or so.

Once the mushrooms are soft, pour in the wine, and add the chicken chunks and the other tablespoon of garlic. Mix this together and don't worry about it being watery at this point. In fact, worry if it's too thick to dissolve all of the flour, and add some water if that's the case. The sauce will thicken as it cooks. Stir the sauce while the chicken cooks. This will probably take ten minutes.

Turn the heat up to medium-high or high. Keep stirring the skillet, while you start the noodles cooking. Tortellini cook fast, so you won't have much time between putting them in and taking them back out, probably a minute or two at most. Make sure the tortellini are still underdone when you take them out.

When you do so, transfer the tortellini to the sauce pan, along with some of the noodle water -- a cup should do it. Stir them in and let them cook in the sauce. Add more basil and oregano if you think it needs it. It probably does. This phase should take about five minutes.

When the sauce is nice and thick, take the skillet off of the heat and serve. You can top it with parmesan or romano cheese if you like, and that is very tasty, but it's not necessary. This dish tastes quite good on its own, with no topping or garnish.

That's it for Cooking with Flew, and remember: less time cooking means more time eating!

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