I got a review copy of Thomas McNaughton’s Flour and Water: Pasta– one of the most-talked-about cookbooks of the fall – and did a terrible thing: I laughed as I perused it.
It’s not that I’m ungrateful: in fact, I felt excessively guilty about my reaction. A considerable amount of time and passion went into the recipes and photos, and someone out there in the publishing world deemed this blog worthy of an advance copy. But why? It appears to be the sort of book that is displayed prominently somewhere and says to people, “A serious foodie lives here. Where shall we go for dinner?”
It’s not that I object to recipes whose names involve words I have to look up: Wild Boar Strozaprettii; Cocoa Tajarin with Brown Butter-Braised Giblets, Butternut Squash, and Sage; and Pappardelle with Braised Goat Shoulder, Anchovy, and Collard Greens. I have a dictionary. I know how to google.
Nor do I object to including things like duck giblets, fuyu persimmons, or spigarello, on my Safeway list – why not turn a routine chore like grocery shopping into a scavenger hunt? It keeps things lively – count me in.
No, my objection is this: Who has time to toast faro and make pasta out of it using a custom bastoncino dowel and hemp comb on a Tuesday night after work?
Still, it was hard to see the cookbook popping up on Amazon and the Tasting Table newsletter and Bon Appetit’s Facebook feed and not think that maybe there was more to it, so one evening I sat down and read a bit of the introductory section, which had some very useful tips for cooking pasta, notably this one: cook your pasta about 80% through in salted water, but then finish the last 20% of cooking in the sauce. It infuses much more of the sauce flavor onto the pasta.
Genius, I thought, and read on.
It turns out, the authors really view the recipes as starting points: If you want to try your hand at making pasta, there are recipes and instructions and helpful tips for doing so. But if you don’t, they make suggestions for store-bought alternatives. There are alternatives for the more challenging ingredients, as well – apples for fuyu persimmons. I can do this.
Armed with that information, I discovered plenty of recipes I could make at home, in a regular suburban kitchen, on a chilly autumn Sunday afternoon, when I have time to cook something in a long, slow, braise. I chose a recipe that would require the fewest substitutions – Toasted Farro Garganelli with Short Ribs, Hazelnuts, and Radicchio – and then took their advice for simplifying it, by simply serving the braised meat on a bed of polenta.
It’s possible I am the world’s worst polenta maker, and also possible that their advice was a bit off the mark here, but whatever the reason, it didn’t work: the resulting plate was watery and bland, unless you just ate the braised meat off the top, as The Child did, and fed the polenta to the Red Dog without even a pretense of hiding it from me. The meat was pretty good, she said, but dinner was weird.
The next day, though, I found myself picking on the leftover meat in the refrigerator, and the following evening, we got home, I boiled pasta in one pan and reheated the braised meat in another, and then finished the pasta just as they suggested, cooking it in the sauce for the last couple of minutes.
It may have been the best pasta I ever ate. The Child agreed, declaring it The Best Pasta You Ever Made, eating two servings, and taking the small bit of leftovers to school for lunch the next day.
I omitted the hazelnuts and radicchio from the original recipe, though I think the radicchio in particular would be a welcome addition to the dish. I chopped the carrots and celery into the three-inch chunks as directed, but it would make more sense to me to cut the pieces smaller to begin with, rather than slice them twice. Some of the quantities listed in the recipe were off (I had two cups of meat after braising, rather than four as stated, but it was more than enough), and it called for mysterious quantities – how much is 1/4 bunch of thyme, anyway? I grow my own, so I took a guess and used four three-inch pieces, and that worked out fine. My cooking time was much shorter than indicated, possibly because I cooked it on the stovetop rather than in the oven.
And yet, it all worked, and rather deliciously at that.
Finally, this dish can easily be made ahead of time – do the braise when you have time, then refrigerate until you’re ready to make pasta and serve. And the leftovers are a fantastic lunch.
Don’t do this. Serve it with pasta.
- 2 lbs bone-in short ribs
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 carrots, cut into 3-inch chunks
- 1 onion, quartered
- 2½ celery stalks, cut into 3-inch chunks
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1½ cups red wine
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ bunch thyme
- ½ spring rosemary
- 1 lb dried casarecce (penne would also work well)
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- 2 tsp sherry vinegar
- parmesan cheese
- Season the short ribs with salt and pepper. In a large pot, heat olive oil until almost smoking. Add short ribs and sear on all sides until deeply browned, about 15 minutes. Remove short ribs and set aside.
- Add the carrots, onion, and celery to the pan and cook until the onion is translucent, about 8 minutes, then add garlic and cook another minute. Add tomato paste and cook a minute more, then pour in the red wine, and cook it down until it is almost gone.
- Return the short ribs to the pan and add chicken stock, bay leaves, thyme, and rosemary. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook several hours, until the meat is falling off the bone.
- Allow the short ribs to cool in the braising liquid, then pick the meat from the bone and tear it into pieces. Remove the vegetables and chop into small pieces. Add the meat and vegetables back to the braising liquid, and refrigerate if not using right away. (You may also wish to skim some of the excess fat from the pot at this stage.)
- To finish: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; bring the pot with the short ribs to a simmer. Cook the pasta about 80 percent through, then drain and add it to the simmering short ribs along with the butter. Cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Add the sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste.
Toby @ Plate Fodder says
Somewhere in my stacks and stacks of cookbooks, I got one that every recipe begins with, “Early in the week” … or ” Five days before…”. It was maddening. Unlike your gifted, complicated book… there were no helpful work-arounds. This does look easier and very tasty.
I’m such a sucker for anything long, slow braised. As for the finishing the pasta in the sauce, it does more than infuse more flavor. The acids in the braising liquids can alter the pasta structure somewhat, causing them to be a little more mushy – especially if you’re making your own noodle.
J. Doe says
This was easy and very, very tasty! And you are right – I noticed was that after a brief cook in the braising liquid, the whole dish came together in a much more unified way. This might also explains why it was such a fail with the polenta – the two things just sat next to each other but didn’t go together. (Also, I’m not a polenta master. I’m learning.)
Ok, that is what I am not doing – salting the water! Have noticed when I mix pasta into the sauce pan and let that go for a minute or two that seems to ensure a great taste. But, salting the water…didn’t know to do that! Great tip.
J. Doe says
Oh, yes, and remember too, the type of salt will also affect the taste – I suggest keeping a big ole box of kosher salt around the kitchen for the best taste without breaking the bank.