Monday, April 11, 2011

Pasta Imperfect

Since my policy here and at the Indy is do no harm, I try to write only about solid-to-better-than-that places and hope my silence on others might indicate I'm not a fan (of course as soon as I write that I realize there's tons of places I like I haven't written about enough, so all apologies to them). As for the other kind of place, you know what I mean, the kind of establishment that seem trendy, never crowded, and can't update their website despite changing chefs twice since the last menu posted there which now has nothing to do with the food their serving. There's just not enough time to eat mediocre food, especially at less then bargain prices.

But I do want to make it clear that every evening isn't a blaze of gustatory glory for George Eats, either, so figure it might not hurt to discuss a meal I made at home last week that just keep finding the fail, element by element. Because that's how easy it is for something to go wrong, but wrong is the wrong word, too. For even this meal was adequate--no spit take necessary. Yet it still bugs me, so I figure taking a walk through it can't hurt as a way too see how a better meal succeeds.

The goal was a pasta with fresh peas, just from the Farmers' Market, and some feta and sundried tomatoes and garlic and capers and oregano. Now, anything this direct is going to ride on two things--excellent ingredients and precise cooking. Alas, things were a bit weak on both sides of that claim. The English peas, the first I've spied this spring, just weren't at their peak. It's become pretty clear that with all the legumes (favas, limas, peas), it's a ramping up and tapering of brilliance, so that the key is to gorge whenever that sweet spot of 10 days or so happens, which no doubt varies season to season depending on rain and sun. These were peas still a bit mealy and dry and not the sweet melting treat they should be soon.

Alas, the pasta failed too, despite buying something better. I've finally decided sure, expensive dried pasta is worth it--I don't skimp buying quality beer or fish or cheese, so why should I think the 3 buck difference for pasta is that important? (Because pasta can be so cheap is one of the problems, of course.) We opted to try Montebello, which is artisan organic pasta from Italy, but evidently not from the same neighborhood as Rustichella d'Abruzzo, at least not the same heartiness. And, then, I let the orechiette (a fine shape to hold peas and feta squares, you know) cook perhaps a minute too long, too--that's all it takes to dent your al dente. Combo of lesser (if more expensive) product and sloppier cooking=blander, mushier pasta.

Other points of contention keeping this dish from being even better: dried oregano is fine, but fresh might have helped it zing a bit more. I had planned to give it a quick zip of lemon zest, but forgot; that might have been ok, as the capers did a fine job providing some bracing acidity, and made a clever mime with the peas, too, so the shape gave no hint as to the taste. (A bit of misdirection of the plate never hurts to keep a meal intriguing.) Thanks to my brilliant co-chef for coming up with the one thing that worked that night.

And then the feta was ok, but not of a great quality, and barely melted, too, which was a shame. I like to cut the squares to about 1/4 inch size so you know you're getting some cheese, but it's also good when some melt and coat, too, as this isn't a pasta with a sauce.

So it's so easy to feel a bit of sadness at such a meal, knowing what could be, eating what is, feeling that gap that shows there are more emptinesses than hunger to fill at the table.

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