Saturday, January 02, 2010

Simplicity in arrabiata

If I were to write a cookbook, it would consist of one recipe:

Pasta Arrabiata

-Heat olive oil, chopped yellow onion (or white onion? is there a difference?), chopped garlic cloves, and red pepper flakes in a pan.
-Pour in can of whole tomatoes. Add chopped fresh tomatoes if a few need to be used, or, if good ones are cheap and available, go the all-fresh route.
-Break canned tomatoes into smaller pieces either before or after the step mentioned above.
-Salt, black pepper.
-Stir occasionally so the above-mentioned sauce doesn't burn onto the pan.
-Wait over an hour, hungrily.
-Put water up to boil.
-Is it done yet? (Anticipation is key.)
-No. Nor is the water boiling.
-Finally! The pasta goes in. Ideally penne, because 'penne arrabiata' has a nice ring to it, but any mix of short pastas will do.
-I like my pasta on the crunchy side, but my dining companion does not. Depending your situation al-dente-wise, remove the pasta when appropriate, remembering to turn off the heat under both pot and pan. Remember to say aloud that you're doing so, so that you don't go out after and find yourself wondering if your apartment is about to burn down.
-Cheese is not totally necessary, and I say this as someone who thinks cheese is pretty fundamental. If you don't go with cheese (Parmesan or similar), either some capers or nothing at all will do just fine.

It's not that I can't/don't make other things too. But somehow this has become the dish - the one that always turns out well, that doesn't require preparation of any other courses, that doesn't go out of season (and given the farmers' markets here, we're down to a few remaining apples), and that isn't the kind of dinner it's possible (for me at least) not to be up for. If you're hungry for dinner, this will not disappoint. If variety's your thing, it just might.

18 comments:

Petey said...

1) Cheese is not "optional". Pasta is a Cheese Delivery Device. Omitting the cheese is like trying to cook the pasta while omitting the boiling water.

2) "Parmesan or similar" (Velveeta?) is not the correct topping. The answer we were looking for here is Reggiano. Once again, Reggiano.

3) Anchovies and olives will give the gravy some zest. A tube of anchovy paste is a good item to keep in fridge for when you don't have any jarred anchovies around. But given that you now have a Putanesca gravy, why refer to it as an Arrabbiata?

PG said...

Any way to get vegetables into that without messing up the flavor? It sounds tasty, but if I am spending an hour cooking something, I try to make it more healthy than cheap delivery options would be.

I don't have a strong opinion on cheese, but both anchovy and olives sound terrible.

Jeff said...

- No dried Italian herbs?

- There really should be some cheese involved (Parmigiano-Reggiano or similar, growing up we frequently had pecorino romano). Whatever it is, make sure it's not pre-grated in a green cylinder.

- I've totally moved away from the gamble of fresh tomatoes in favor of good canned ones.

- I've also gotten away from the idea that the sauce has to be cooked a long time. If I'm cooking meatballs or sausages in the sauce I cook until the meats are done (verified by probe thermometer at 30-45 minutes).

- I saw Alton Brown state years ago that tomatoes have some alcohol-soluble flavors so I always toss in some alcohol (usually vodka, which I always have on hand).

- As far as vegetables I will sometimes add some diced or half-rounded zucchini. They soften up pretty fast. My grandmother used to add lots of carrots to the sauce to sweeten it, in lieu of using sugar, but she cooked it for hours.

But now, the sauce is no longer so simple.

Petey said...

One variation of the arrabiata I've much enjoyed is to substitute a fresh habanero for the dried red pepper flakes.

The habanero flavor goes surprisingly well in the Roman setting.

Petey said...

"I've also gotten away from the idea that the sauce has to be cooked a long time. "

Agreed. Unless I'm making a hearty winter mushroom ragu that needs to simmer a bit, my gravies are always done in under 20 minutes.

Phoebe said...

A few points:

-The long-cooking makes the difference, and does, even with just the ingredients mentioned, make the sauce taste sweet.

-Health: how is the dish unhealthy? True, there are no green vegetables (and season permitting, there can be a salad appetizer/arugula thrown on top), but chopped up onions, garlic, and tomatoes would be called a vegetable soup if it weren't for the pasta below. Comparing the dish with cheap takeout (specifically the Pepe Rosso closest equivalent), the advantages are primarily quality and cost. Basically, I like my sauce better than theirs, but if time is the issue and I'm on campus, Pepe Rosso it is.

-Other herbs: I do put these in sauce generally. I just find that the garlic and red pepper flakes do enough, and that thyme or oregano detract.

-I forgot an ingredient! If I have good olives, some of those, chopped, can go in as well.

PG said...

The dish isn't particularly *un*healthy; without cheese it's nearly fat-free. It just doesn't have a lot of nutritional value. Onions + garlic + tomato = tomato soup, which I don't think of as adding much in the way of vitamins, fiber, etc. to my intake.

Petey said...

"The dish isn't particularly *un*healthy; without cheese it's nearly fat-free. It just doesn't have a lot of nutritional value. Onions + garlic + tomato = tomato soup, which I don't think of as adding much in the way of vitamins, fiber, etc. to my intake."

This is a quite wonderful example of how Americans don't understand food.

Phoebe said...

PG,

It's not kale, but I'm not seeing the nutritional emptiness in this recipe. I think because of the association of pizza with that which is consumed in its greasiest form, washed down by beer, by college students gaining the Freshman 15, or perhaps just because of ketchup, anything red-sauce-related is assumed pseudo-junk. Whereas tomatoes, onions, and garlic have vitamins and fiber (particularly if the skin's still on the tomatoes), although make the pasta whole wheat and there's more fiber than some would know what to do with. (Not that I'd consider whole-wheat pasta, but some might.) If all a person ever ate was this one dish, then yes, that would not be ideal, but I can't think of a one-dish meal of which this wouldn't be true. It's a healthy meal, not the healthy meal. Things balance out over the week - this is a less snarky version, I think, of Petey's point, that there's no need to winnow it down to a meal of alleged superfoods.

Tangentially related: I keep seeing 'healthy' recipes that basically involve cooking wholesome-sounding root vegetables in lots of oil (and possibly sugar). This does get back to the idea of comfort food - food that sounds like what children would eat (i.e. pasta and tomato sauce) is assumed less healthy than more 'adult' food - food for which one must cultivate a taste - regardless of nutritional content. There are also class issues... But I could go on and on, and so will stop here. But I do think how we as a society designate foods as healthy and unhealthy is about more than nutrition. (Not that your comment referred to more than nutrition - I'm talking about the discussion more generally.)

Petey said...

"Not that I'd consider whole-wheat pasta, but some might."

Surprisingly good.

I resisted seriously trying it for quite a while, but once I did, I started getting pretty into it.

The trick for me was learning that the first batch of WW when you've been regularly eating white pasta tastes just wrong. But if you make WW a second time in a row, you start to appreciate it as something other than just a wrongly prepared white pasta.

Now I'll alternate a month or two eating white, and then a month or two eating WW. They both have their charms.

(And oddly, but perhaps obviously, the first batch of white pasta tastes wrong after you've been regularly eating WW. But the second time in a row cures that as well.)

PG said...

This is a quite wonderful example of how Americans don't understand food.

And here I thought I'd asked a simple question about adding ingredients that I might like, instead of olive and anchovy paste.

Even if you ate an entire cup of sauteed yellow onion, that would have 1g of dietary fiber, 3% of your Vit C, 2% of your Vit A and 1% of your iron for the day. A cup of tomato would make up the Vit C, but have fairly negligible levels of iron, B vits and dietary fiber. Garlic has a better nutrition profile, but no one eats an entire cup of garlic.

No individual ingredient need be a "superfood" like kale, but just as tomato has things onion doesn't, carrots could bump up the level of Vit A and fiber. I just don't know which particular ingredients might go with the flavors of the tomato-onion-garlic base, which is why I asked.

This does get back to the idea of comfort food - food that sounds like what children would eat (i.e. pasta and tomato sauce) is assumed less healthy than more 'adult' food - food for which one must cultivate a taste

I don't think I fit into that perspective, since I never see Indian food in the "comfort food" category and I've been eating Indian food since I was weaned from breastmilk. My mom would mash it through a hand-grinder as it was much cheaper than buying Gerbers. For me, a significant marker of being an adult and being separated from my parents was eating "American food" for every meal. I had my first encounter with meatloaf in a college dining hall, and had to puzzle out how to get meat off a chicken thighbone using fork and knife (instead of eating with my right hand) in the same venue.

The foods for which taste literally develops (as opposed to being a purely culturally-based matter of what your parents fed you) are those that are particularly bitter, because children taste such flavors more strongly due to having more taste buds (buds wear down with age). I've had children reject high quality dark chocolate for this reason: what seems delicious to adults is too bitter to little kids, even when presented in the culturally-acceptable form of chocolate.

I'd consider ramen to be comfort food for most Americans (albeit dating more from collegiate days), but of course David Chang's Noodle Bar makes big money off exploiting how ramen can be some sort of amazing taste experience. (I tried his once and coupled with my "eh" reaction to noodles in Japan, decided that I just don't have the noodle appreciation gene. My people don't eat a lot of noodles. Rice, on the other hand...)

People do sophisticated pizza, hamburgers, mac & cheese, meatloaf -- the whole traditional American children's menu has been reconstructed with fancier ingredients for a more exquisite flavor.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

I do like whole wheat other things, so, who knows.

PG,

Taste-wise, I really do think the addition of any other vegetables to tomato sauce would be nauseating. I even watched a Minimalist video in which this was done in as appetizing a way as possible, and I wasn't interested. And... I've tried including various forms of eggplant, with almost uniformly icky results. That said, I'll throw arugula on top of absolutely anything, but it helps if it's in season. And I do think the issue is what one eats the whole day/week - dietary fiber can happen some other way, including, apparently, whole wheat pasta.

"no one eats an entire cup of garlic."

I sure would, if peeling the cloves weren't such a pain. But I put as close to that in the sauce as I have the patience for.

As I'd hoped was clear, I didn't mean the comfort-food reference to apply to your response in particular. It's that I find that in general, whether a recipe/restaurant dish is presented as 'virtuous' or 'sinful' comes less from the dish's health profile than from whether the dish is familiar/kid-friendly. The upscale version of kid-food is indeed a trend that comes and goes, but there's a reason this sounds wholesome but a similar preparation of potatoes with a kid-friendly name would not.

PG said...

It's that I find that in general, whether a recipe/restaurant dish is presented as 'virtuous' or 'sinful' comes less from the dish's health profile than from whether the dish is familiar/kid-friendly.

Maybe it's just a difference in what we read about food or where we eat. I find it unbelievable that Joel Robuchon has any pretensions that his food is healthy, despite its being neither kid-friendly nor familiar to most Americans. Eating his food is definitely a "sinful" indulgence in terms of health as well as monetary expenditure (and given the foie gras in the chestnut soup, of questionable morality as well).

Nor did I perceive any presentation of the recipe for Chang's pork buns as "virtuous" -- it's 2 lbs of salted pig fat! Eating pig can be kid friendly or sophisticated depending on the form (bacon and non-kosher hot dogs vs. prosciutto and pork belly), but I don't think I've ever seen anyone pass off the former as somehow more sinful than the latter.

Gluttony is gluttony is gluttony, and the traditional Christian conception of gluttony condemned not just excessive eating by amount of food, but also excess in expense and concern for food. (I know neither of us is Christian, but given how much notions of virtue and sin in our culture are driven by inchoate remanants of Christianity, I think it's relevant.)

Phoebe said...

PG,

I think you remain unconvinced because I'm not explaining this right. I agree that gluttony is gluttony. But what I'm thinking of is the tendency of restaurants (fast-food on up) to present certain not-so-healthy dishes as 'salad' or 'vegetable'-centric. Or, at recipes that involve adding all kinds of fat and sugar to something that, on account of it not being a potato, must be healthy. (See the pre-salad suggestion of rutabaga here.) It's not that all fine-dining is presented as virtuous. And you're right that the new trend in dressing up kid-foods leads to a whole lot of fine-dining that almost advertises itself as unhealthy (if local/sustainable).

Part of what I'm observing is, I think, the trend of caring more about sustainability and 'real food' (as versus processed) than about older concerns (i.e. vitamins, fat content, caloric density). So if the sugar-coated fried pork was produced nearby, and the pigs were happy prior to becoming your dinner, then your meal is somewhat virtuous after all.

Petey said...

"Even if you ate an entire cup of sauteed yellow onion, that would have 1g of dietary fiber, 3% of your Vit C, 2% of your Vit A and 1% of your iron for the day. A cup of tomato would make up the Vit C, but have fairly negligible levels of iron, B vits and dietary fiber."

See, this is exactly what I meant above.

Try it this way: Froot Loops has a genuinely excellent "nutrition" profile, since they spray multivitamins over their product. But Froot Loops is not a particularly healthy addition to your diet. How can this be?

Cuisine is a very complex living organism that simply cannot be reduced to a nutrition ingredient checklist. When you try to do so, you get American attitudes to food, and the resultant bad effects.

See The French Paradox for beginning reading on how cuisine works as a complex living organism.

-----

"Garlic has a better nutrition profile, but no one eats an entire cup of garlic."

Speak for yourself.

One of my favorite arrabbiata variations (usually I go here during the summer) is to slowly sauté an entire head of chopped garlic per person in lots of olive oil with some capsicum, add a very moderate number of fresh tomatoes, sauté a bit more, then add lots of red wine and let the sauce simmer and reduce for a while. (This is one gravy that I do let cook for a goodly amount of time.) Goes excellently with pasta shells, to give the chopped garlic some place to nestle. Serve with lots of cheese. Obscenely good, and you feel wonderful the next day.

PG said...

Petey,

they spray multivitamins over their product. But Froot Loops is not a particularly healthy addition to your diet. How can this be?

That would be a relevant response if I'd asked "What multivitamins should I be taking?" But that's not what I asked; I asked what additional vegetables (i.e. not processed foods with added nutrients, sugar or salt) might go well in this sauce. Phoebe has given an answer, which is that she doesn't think any would. I don't know why you persist in the delusion that I asked about something else.

It's also annoying for you to persist in declaring that I have an "American attitude" toward food, when I've made it clear in this thread and many others on this blog that my main cuisine since birth has not been "American." If you want to discuss what an interest in vegetables means about my cuisine, switch to "Indian/ Indian-American attitude" and we might get somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Sounds wonderful and I confess I am salivating. I like to grate my parmesan cheese on the coarse side of the grater and/or use a couple of sides -- fine and coarse. And when at a restaurant, I allow the waiter to grate and grate before saying "when." JM

Petey said...

"I've made it clear in this thread and many others on this blog that my main cuisine since birth has not been "American." If you want to discuss what an interest in vegetables means about my cuisine, switch to "Indian/ Indian-American attitude" and we might get somewhere."

America is a nation of immigrants.

Gravy, you must understand, is sacred. Reducing gravy to tomato soup is blasphemy, and the new Irish laws apply worldwide on the internet.