KITCHEN CATASTROPHE 3: YOU SAUCY MINX

Why Hello There! Welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe. I’m Jon O’Guin. Some of you were no doubt confused by our last post. I promised you to talk about pasta and sauce, and instead you got Coke-ham and cults. That’s an important lesson: I lie. Frequently. Well, ACTUALLY, what I do is “tell falsehoods”, because I’ve formed an internal definition of lying that’s generous enough that when people hear it, they go “That makes sense”, but broad enough for me to say a lot of untrue things without ever feeling bad.

For instance, you may recall my hatred of Rosemary, espoused in the first note. Also untrue. It IS true that I’m not a particular fan of fresh Rosemary, but I don’t outright hate it, and find its woodsy notes acceptable in many dishes. It’s just when you get bad rosemary, I find it particularly awful, and, as this election cycle has been showing us all, reasoned nuance is no competition to broad attacks and declarations. (The best part of that joke is, generally speaking, it’ll work for almost EVERY election cycle. Even the famed speaker Abraham Lincoln resorted to pranking his opponents on stage for some debate wins.)

Chuckler in Chief

So, you ended up with pigs instead of pasta, and I got a little chuckle, and some more time to write this note up! So, let’s actually talk about pasta and sauces, or, if your trust in me has been so violated you can no longer bear to hear me speak (read me write?), you can jump to the recipes here

Stiff Upper Lip and Collar

When it comes to my preferred recipes and choices, you’re going to see a trend. Or, at least, I do. My family, and myself, are fans of a few broad cuisines that share some interesting traits. Firstly, we like Latin food, with a focus on Tex-Mex: Beans, cumin, lime juice, ground beef and tortillas. We also like Italian food: garlic bread, sausage, Caesar Salad and pasta. I’m a fan of Chinese and Thai food: rice, curries, chicken and pork, noodles. And finally, classic Americana: potatoes, salt and pepper, pickles, steak, greens.

Basically, my family loves starches. Bread, potatoes, rice, tortillas. Starches are great because they tend to expand in liquid environments, which you may recognize your insides as being a ‘liquid environments’. You can also use then in heated meals to gelatinize them. Which, despite sounding super exciting to children, really just means “thicken them”. Further, starches are really just huge sugar chains held together by gylcosidic bonds. Meaning that, as your stomach/intestines breaks them down, you get gradual sugar dispersal. This is why many athletes ‘carb up’ the day before an intensive event: they’re basically adding a slow-burning second tank to burn from that day.

photo by Steven Pisano
photo by Steven Pisano

Look at his face, he wishes he had Italian last night.

Beyond our staunch and starchy companions, my family love meats, and we love spices. So it should come as no surprise that my family is a big fan of pastas. You got the pasta itself, toss on a meat sauce, and boom, you got a meal. If you’re trying to aim a little healthier, use a sauce that doesn’t have meat, or is less rich. There’s tons of sauces out there, and I should know.

Back on the Sauce

My initial forays into cooking were actually in the realm of sauces and spice mixes. Dipping sauces for chicken nuggets, rubs for meat, this was the first place I learned how to mix flavors together in harmony. It was from these initial steps that I moved on to actually making full meals. So sauce always has a fond spot in my heart, especially if the sauce in question uses fond. (I’m so sorry. I was halfway through the sentence, saw the pun, and was unable to resist. I was weak. Forgive me.)

This is why it may come as a surprise that it took me quite some time to make cooked sauces. I never viewed them as…elegant, I suppose. In my defense, my family’s default red sauce for spaghetti is “two bottles of Ragu, a pound of Italian sausage, and a 5 oz can of sliced mushrooms”, so my views to their indelicacy can at least be explained. It wasn’t until years later that I explored the world of Pestos, Alfredos, and other red sauces. And luckily for you, I’m bringing these dishes straight to you, the reader! So let’s dive into Walnut-Parsley Pesto, Basic Alfredo, and, the stinging king of the evening: Arrabiata.

Don’t Be a Pest, O

Now, Pesto’s an old Italian sauce that leads to one of my favorite trends in sauces: Names are really funny or stupid, historically speaking. For instance, “Pesto” literally translates to “Crushed”. Because that’s how you make it. You crush a bunch of ingredients together, and toss pasta in it. It’s a beautifully straightforward concept. Now, traditional pesto uses Pine Nuts, but here’s the thing: for 1 pound of pine nuts, you could buy 10 pounds of raw Titanium. (Fun Fact: Did you know raw Titanium is only $2 a pound? I didn’t until I needed a comparison.) And if my choices are between tasty pasta sauce, and enough metal to forge Andûril, Flame of the West, Blade of the King, TWICE, I know which I’m going to pick.

But you know what you can use that’s only worth the cost of 2 pounds of Titanium? Walnuts. (Jesus, we must love nuts as a people.) Toast those delicious suckers up, and they’ll do pine nuts’ job. Now, the recipe I’m using (which is from Bon Appetit) recommended toasting on a baking sheet in the oven. We did it in a skillet on the stove, while cooking the sausage. Both ways work, but the stove-top method needs careful attention. If you get caught with your hands full of an over-flowing bowl of sausage, stems, and leaves when the Walnuts are done, you may come too late, and burn them.

You know you screwed up when a completely dry mess still looks like vomit.

Once you get the second batch toasted, 3/4s of it go into a food processor, when you dice until very finely chopped. Then you add 6 Calabrian peppers, without stems. What’s that? You’ve never heard of Calabrian peppers? Well, neither had I. The one downside to Bon Appetit recipes, I find, is they’re big fans of testing out new foods trends, which, living in semi-remote towns in Washington, I don’t have the resources to replicate. Luckily, they say you can substitute a Fresno chile. Which my father had never heard of. And I was only vaguely aware of. We went to the store, and couldn’t find any. Only Serranos, Jalapenoes, “Long” peppers, Habaneros…We asked the man behind the produce counter which would be a good substitute. The answer? “Oh, yeah. The “long” peppers are Fresnos.” Oh. Well, that’s convenient.

So it goes into the food processor with the walnut once you cut the stem off. Pulse it until it’s chopped up and mixed in. Then, you toss the nuts and pepper into a bowl, and mix it with finely chopped parsley, garlic, and grated parmesan. The whole thing looks like a really weird salad.

Day 2, and still the meal looks like vomit.

Now, this sauce, you may note isn’t very liquid: that’s because it uses pasta water to thin itself out. Really, once your pasta’s cooked, swipe a cup of the liquid before draining. Then toss the noodles in the sauce, adding splashes of the water until it’s shiny and well-distributed. Now, when we had it, we liked the flavor, however, we did have one complaint: This recipe is made for 3/4s of a pound of noodles. Which is just a weird damn number. So we used a whole pound, and forgot to take some out before we mixed it. Don’t make our mistake.

Alfredo’s and Alfredon’ts

Now, Alfredo is a super popular sauce in restaurants across America. It’s rich, cheesy, has a haunting note that few can pin down, and is seen as a refined white sauce. Which I enjoy, because its name is essentially “Fred sauce”. Seriously, Alfredo’s a common name in Italy and Mexico. Hell, one of my favorite bartenders is named Alfredo. (By the way, if you’re in Pullman, check him out. Alfredo treats mixers like an garnish to alcohol. You get rum and cokes that are 6 oz rum to 2 of coke.) It’s directly named after Alfredo di Lelio, a restaurateur from Rome in the early 1900’s. Before that, it was called “PASTA al burro e parmigiana”. Or, in English: “Pasta in butter and Parmesan”. Seriously, Italian pasta names are the simplest shit in the world.

This recipe, which I took from Better Homes and Gardens, is similarly simple: Melt butter, add cream, salt and pepper, boil a few minutes, add parmesan, stir until cheese melts, toss hot pasta in sauce. That’s it. The famous restaurant Alfredo of Rome? Melt butter, add salt and pepper. Add hot pasta add parmesan, toss until cheese melts. Alfredo is the “easy mac” of respectable sauces. That haunting note some people try to pin down? It’s typically a sprinkle of Nutmeg. This recipe has 5 ingredients, and 3 of them are freebies (salt, pepper, butter). It’s so easy, that this picture of Gnocchi Alfredo

Are we certain these aren’t cheese-coated cheese curds?

Isn’t even mine. I couldn’t be bothered to spend the 4 minutes it would take to make the sauce.

HAHA. Another of my cunning ruses! I totally made that Alfredo. I told you false things for absolutely no reason!

How Does That Make You Feel?

Frustrated, perhaps? Confused? Used? Perhaps…ANGRY? Hopefully, because that’s the name of our last sauce, so if you’re not, I really did deceive you for no reason. My apologies. (I don’t apologize for the bit, though. Bits are sacred here.) But yes, for our last sauce, I made Pasta Arrabbiata, or, translated, “Angry Pasta”. So named because the sauce is fiery and biting. And that’s what angry Italians are presumably like. This explains why their word for ‘angry’ only made it into English as “rabid”.

Anyway, this sauce is pretty straightforward: You toss some aromatics in a pan, and cook them a bit to meld flavors, which I really shouldn’t have to explain. “Toss in pan at the start for flavors to build” is the defining characteristic OF aromatics. Onion, Garlic, Ginger, Carrot, Celery, Tomato Paste, Anchovies: all are things that get tossed into pans at the start of cooking to bring nuanced flavors later.

This specific recipe was actually difficult for me for two reasons: First, Anchovies. Now, I know I’ve been less than truthful a couple times with you, but here’s an honest, real fact about me: I don’t like most foods from the ocean. Basically it boils down to me being “okay” with salmon, tuna, crab, and seaweed. Everything else under the sea can stay there, in my opinion. I recently had a fried oyster solely to confirm that yes, oysters are still disgusting. So, when the recipe called for me to open this:

Oh look, it was already open. That’s not at all worrying.

And I had to separate the oil-covered filets by hand, coating my fingers in their briny slick packing fluid, which resisted every attempt to rinse away, then prying the disturbingly-tearing meat apart, before mincing them into a fine paste, I want you to understand how much that cost me. The second was a logistical issue. See, I read the recipe, went to dinner, and then wrote the grocery list for the supplies to make it. I realized I had forgotten the size of a specific can used, so I went to the website of the company, and looked it up. Unbeknownst to me, the recipe I looked up was actually for a smaller version of the same meal. (In retrospect, “Arrabiata for Two” might have tipped me off.) In any case, the time came to puree tomatoes to add to the aromatics, and I found that I was…sadly lacking. Luckily, there was a can of diced tomatoes in the pantry, which I stole and added. The sauce reduced, the pasta cooked, I brought forth my test subject. My good friend JJ was helping me with some errands, and I offered him a pasta meal in exchange. I didn’t explain to him what kind of meal it was. I watched as he spooned one, two, three scoops of the sauce onto his bowl of pasta, announcing “You can never have too much red sauce.” I considered warning him. But I didn’t.

Photo by Michael Fötsch
Photo by Michael Fötsch

Look at that sexy sauce. That I didn’t make. I actually forgot to take a picture of the completed sauce before I ate it all. I’m not great at what I do.

Seconds later. “Wow.” *clearing of throat* “That is powerful sauce.” Immediately, he looked at me, a flicker of pain in his eyes. “You could have warned me. “ “I know.”

Join us next time, when I make JJ ruin his hands as I laugh!

RECIPES

Walnut Parsley Pesto

Ingredients.
1 c walnuts
1 Fresno Pepper, stem removed (or 6 Calabrian peppers)
1.5 oz grated Parmesan by weight (~1.5 cups)
1 c chopped parsley.
1/3 c olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced.
Salt & Pepper.

PREPARATION

  1. Toast the walnuts until slightly darkened and fragrant. Pulse ¾ cup walnuts in food processor until finely chopped.
  2. Toss in Fresno pepper, pulse until that’s chopped. Mix with remaining ingredients in a medium bowl.
  3. Toss pasta in sauce with ½ cup pasta water, adding a splash at a time until glossy and well-coated. Top with remaining walnuts and extra parmesan.

ALFREDO
Ingredients
2 Tbsp Butter
1 C Heavy Cream
1/8 tsp Pepper
½ tsp salt
½ c grated parmesan.
1 dash Nutmeg

Preparation.

  1. Melt butter in Saucepan over medium. Add cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg. Boil for 3 minutes.
  2. Add cheese. Stir until melted. Toss hot pasta in sauce

Arrabiata
Ingredients
¼ c olive oil
¼ c pepperoncini (cut off stems, dry, and mince)
4 anchovy filets (rinse, dry, and mince)
½ tsp paprika
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp red pepper flakes
½ tsp Salt & ½ tsp pepper.
1 (28 oz) can whole tomatoes, pulsed in food processor about 10 times.
¼ cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.

PREPARATION
Heat first 8 ingredients (everything upto salt and pepper) over medium-low for 7-8 minutes, until deep red. Then add tomatoes and cheese.
Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Toss pasta in warm sauce.