Those who are comfortable in the kitchen may be amused by my anxious gastronomic flailing. But novice and intermediate cooks may learn something interesting and helpful from my journey.
Part 1: The reluctant and insecure cook
I like good food. I have traveled and enjoyed cuisines all over the world. I have known and enjoyed the cooking of some very good chefs. In the past I have worked in the wine industry and know a bit about wine. I am not a picky eater, nor am I a harsh judge of food. But I can recognize and am delighted when I am served excellent food.
I am not a good cook. I lack knowledge, experience, and confidence in the kitchen. Whereas I may be able to keep a cool and level head in many areas others might find stressful (public speaking, performing music and dance, etc.), I am wholly devoid of confidence and grace in the kitchen.
The rare moments I attempt to follow a recipe, I carefully line up all the ingredients in order on the counter to save me the severe anxiety and stress of finding myself midway through a recipe and missing a key ingredient.
In short, beyond my confidence in making good and interesting fresh salads, I cook less than once a month beyond the fried egg or pancakes here and there.
Part 2: The Story of Cascatelli
I am an avid listener of podcasts. A podcast may promote another podcast, and one of mine (I can’t remember which) played an episode from Dan Pashman’s “The Sporkful.”
This James Beard and Webby Award-winning podcast is all about food, and the episode I heard was from a series called “Mission: ImPASTAble.”
In it, host Dan Pashman embarked on a 3-year quest to invent a new pasta shape. He reviewed and tasted existing pasta shapes, visited pasta making mills, researched different wheat used to make pasta, and more.
Pashman’s goal was to invent a new pasta shape to which sauce would readily adhere (“Sauceability”), was easy to get onto your fork and keep it there (“Forkability”), and was satisfying to sink your teeth into (“Toothsinkability”).
I was hooked and binge-listened to the whole series in a day or two. From the trials and errors of developing a pasta shape that met his three criteria, trying to decide on appropriate name for his pasta, finding a company that would manufacture it, sinking a lot more money than he planned or expected into the venture, and waiting anxiously to see whether the pasta would sell or he would go deep into debt, I listened intently, eager to hear how it all ended up.
Long story short: his pasta is a resounding success. You can order it, but as of this writing wait times are 2-4 weeks (which is an improvement from the 4-week wait just a month ago).
What a great story, I thought. I shared the podcast series with a few friends, including a friend who is a professional chef. Then I forgot about it.
Part 3: A Surprise Gift
My friend surprised me with my own box of Cascatelli.
I was excited to receive it, but immediately decided such a fine pasta really needed more than store-bought sauce to go on it.
Repeatedly through the podcast series, Pashman bemoaned and denigrated spaghetti (and several of its pasta cousins) for its utter lack of ability to adhere to and deliver sauce in each bite. He really wanted a pasta that could be a delicious carrier of a good meat sauce.
I had never made a meat sauce and wouldn’t recognize a good meat sauce recipe if it hit me in the face. So I asked my friend to help me. They suggested the following Ragù di carne (Bolognese) recipe from the Splendid Table:
They immediately suggested some substitutions and modifications (something I would loath to do on my own): bacon instead of pancetta, forget the chicken livers (no argument there), cream instead of milk, add a pinch of sage, and half the cooking times.
There were to be more alterations before the meal was cooked, much to my great anxiety (I will list all the modifications and substitutions at the end of this post).
Part 4: Can You Take the Heat in the Kitchen?
I didn’t line up all the needed ingredients in order on the counter as I normally would do (foreshadowing alert!). I made a list of needed ingredients and headed out to pick them up. Once home, I started in.
Apart from a minor snafu using the new food processor to mince the veggies, things started out okay.
The recipe measured the meat and many of the ingredients by weight, which was new to me. Fortunately, we own a good kitchen scale, and I delighted myself by plopping the correct amount of ground pork within 2 grams on the first try (I actually think I’d prefer using weight in recipes…).
The meat in the pot beginning to brown, I came to the part in the recipe calling for tomato paste dissolved in water. Where was the tomato paste? I hadn’t put it out. I went to the pantry and started digging. I knew there was a tube of Napoleon tomato paste in there somewhere…
With mounting anxiety, I frantically started pulling cans out of the crowded pantry. Whole skinned tomatoes, tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, ketchup … no tomato paste. Frantic with the fear I was going to ruin all that wonderful high-quality meat I had browning in the pot, I sent an urgent cry for help to my friend, the chef.
They assured me I could simply substitute half tomato sauce, half water for the dissolved tomato paste mixture. Crisis averted, I allowed myself a glass of the cheap red wine I had opened for the sauce.
Then I read further, and realized I still had a couple hours of cooking to go. It was already 8 PM. “I guess I won’t be eating this tonight,” I thought, glumly. The kitchen smelled incredible. I was bummed I wouldn’t get to enjoy the fruits of my anxiety, er, labor, for another day.
My friend assured me that although many people like to cook their meat sauces a really long time, covered, over low heat, we could raise the temperature a little, leave the pot uncovered, and significantly reduce the cooking time. The main goal was to reduce the liquid.
They had also recommended cream instead of milk (half the volume listed in the recipe). Further, there was no need to follow the recipe’s direction to pour a little in, cook a while, add a little more, and repeat. Pour it all in, stir it, and cook it down was their advice.
I did so, and as the sauce cooked down, I started the water for the pasta. While both pots cooked, I removed a hunk of Parmesan cheese from the fridge, and following another tip from my friend, used a clean vegetable peeler to slice thin shavings of cheese.
The pasta finished, and the meat sauce was cooked down enough. I served myself my first bowl of Cascatelli with my first self-homemade Bolognese sauce with flakes of cheese sprinked on top. My fork sank into the pasta and delivered the first taste of my meat sauce to my taste buds…
It tasted the best of anything I’ve cooked in my life and was possibly the best meat sauce I’d ever tasted anywhere. The fact I’d made it myself might have skewed my judgement a little…
Part 5: Recipe Modifications / Things I Learned
Here are the variations from the original Splendid Table recipe as well as other tips I learned along the way:
- Use bacon instead of pancetta
- Olive Oil – no need to use fancy/fruity olive oil when you are cooking; I do have some fine olive oil, but I just used my big bottle of extra virgin
- Chicken livers – omitted these completely
- Prosciutto di Parma is optional; I went ahead and bought some, but I couldn’t find any unsliced and had to manage with super thin slices
- Dry red wine – don’t use cooking wine; buy some cheap red wine (or white). Cooking wine contains stabilizers and preservatives. Buy a wine you can sip during and after cooking
- Tomato paste: LFMF – in this case, I had none, and was able to substitute ½ cup Tomato Sauce and ½ cup water
- ¼ cup cream (heavy or whipping cream) instead of ½ cup whole milk
- Add a pinch of sage when adding the liquids
- Wooden spoon – forget it, unless you are using a non-stick pan, any spoon will do
- Add the salt and pepper earlier when you add the wine and tomato paste/sauce
- Simmer, uncovered, and cut the cooking time in half or more. The main thing is to reduce the liquid
- Instead of using a grater, slice thin flakes of cheese using a vegetable peeler
Notes on cooking pasta:
Use more salt in the water. In my case, I put two generous tablespoons of kosher salt into my big cooking pot. Apparently, few people salt their water enough when cooking pasta at home. This is why pasta in restaurants often tastes better.
Don’t rinse pasta when it’s done cooking. Rinsing pasta removes starch from the surface of the pasta making it slippery. Your sauce won’t adhere to the pasta.
Instead, simply drain it in a strainer or sieve and reserve some of the starchy water you cooked it in. That way, if the pasta starts to get dry or stick, you can use that cooking water to loosen it up without removing the starch.
Don’t worry about your pasta continuing to cook without rinsing it in cold water. Once out of the hot cooking water, the pasta will stop cooking.
I’m a little annoyed that Dan Pashman didn’t put these cooking directions on this Cascatelli box. He does say “generously salted water,” but it seems like the “don’t rinse away the starch” should be front and center since “Sauceability” was such a big requirement for his new pasta.
I loved my pasta and meat sauce and am so grateful to my friend who gifted me the pasta and talked me off the ledge several times during the cooking process. I was also grateful for all the cooking tips I received.
I delivered a serving of my pasta and sauce to a grateful neighbor. Good meals should be shared!
I hope you enjoyed my story and maybe learned something helpful too.