Cooking Tips

The Seven Sins of Cooking Pasta

Since I grew up in a home with a strong Italian background, pasta was a big part of my life. There was always a reason to eat pasta. Not feeling well? Here, have some pastina in chicken broth. Traveling tomorrow? Here, eat some angel hair with parmesan cheese.  Just got back from a long trip? Here, Grandma left a lasagna in the refrigerator.

Cooking pasta is something I’ve just always known how to do. I don’t remember being taught how to cook pasta. I just grew up helping my mom. What to do, and not to do, with pasta has always been common sense to me. As I’ve grown older, though, and met people from different backgrounds, I’ve come to realize that what I’ve always thought was common sense is really not common knowledge for many people.

And so here is a list of the common mistakes people make when cooking pasta. I like to refer to this list as the Seven Sins of Cooking Pasta.

  1. Using too small of a pot. Pasta is really starchy, and it expands while it cooks. It needs space to boil, otherwise you’ll end up with a gummy mess. You should use a pot around 6 quarts, even if you’re only doing half a pound of pasta.
  2. Not salting the water. This is your chance to flavor the pasta. If you don’t generously salt the water, your pasta will come out bland. To prevent salt from staining your precious pasta pot (yes, I used the word precious), wait until the water comes to a boil and then add the salt (just don’t forget!). How much salt? I don’t measure, of course, but I would say probably around 1 1/2  or 2 tablespoons.
  3. Adding oil to the water. I guess the thought behind this is that if you add oil, the pasta won’t stick together as it boils. Here’s the problem, though. Since oil floats on top of water, when you dump your pasta out, you’ll have pasta coated in oil and it won’t adhere to your sauce. Instead of adding oil to the water, just stir the pasta during the first few minutes of cooking and the pasta should be fine.
  4. Dumping all of the pasta water down the drain. I’ll admit that I didn’t learn this one until I was older. That salty, starchy pasta water is an excellent way to get sauces to adhere to your pasta. Even if you add just a small amount, the pasta and sauce will be so much happier together. Better yet, depending on the type of sauce you’re using, you can take the pasta out of the pot a few minutes early and let if finish cooking in the sauce and a bit of pasta water. I find this method particularly useful when doing very simple sauces, such as mushroom, wine and garlic. Just scoop the pasta and some water right into the skillet with the wine and mushrooms and everything will be quite delicious. If you wait until the pasta is done to toss it with the sauce, that’s okay too. Just be sure to do it in a large bowl off of the stove (so it doesn’t overcook) and toss immediately.
  5. Overcooking the pasta. Pasta should have a bite to it. Not crunchy but a nice bite. No one likes mushy pasta, except maybe babies and toddlers. To avoid overcooked pasta, look at the time recommended on the box and set your timer for a minute or two below that time. When the timer goes off, taste the pasta and keep tasting until it’s al dante. It will continue to cook a little out of the water, so get it out before it’s too late.
  6. Rinsing the cooked pasta. Sigh. That wonderful salt flavor just got rinsed down the drain. And the starch that will help the pasta stick to the sauce? Bye bye. Don’t rinse the pasta! The only, and I mean only, exception to this rule is if you’re preparing a cold pasta dish, such as a pasta salad, and you want to serve it immediately. Otherwise, resist the temptation to rinse your pasta.
  7. Putting too much on your pasta. Not everyone will agree with me on this one. In fact, I don’t even completely agree with myself on this one. Sometimes I do love a ton of sauce on my spaghetti. Most of the time, though, I like to keep my pasta simple. Nothing tastes better than pasta right out of the water, and so I hate to see that delicious pasta flavor covered up by too much. Some of my favorite pasta dishes will have a light sauce, such as a wine sauce or even just olive oil, a bit of cheese, and cracked pepper.

Every pasta shape tastes different to me, and every time I go into a specialty Italian store (such as Carfagna’s), I notice a shape I haven’t tried yet. Be adventurous with your pasta shapes and flavors. Also, think about the sauce you’re using. Pasta with ridges is ideal for heavier sauces, whereas something delicate, such as angel hair, is best with a very light sauce. Experiment with whole wheat vs white pasta. I find that whole wheat has a nuttier flavor and pairs well with pestos and wine sauces. Try egg pasta, if you haven’t before. Be bold. Think outside the spaghetti box.

 

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How to Freeze Tomatoes for Winter

I’m going to start with a warning. Freezing tomatoes takes time and effort, and it’s certainly a lot easier to buy a can of tomatoes in middle of winter. The taste of frozen tomatoes, however, is something that even the best canned tomatoes can’t compare to. Plus you know where the tomatoes came from, you supported a local farmer, you’re in control of the type of tomatoes, and you don’t have to worry about any chemicals that could be potentially lurking in a can. It is worth every second you have to spend in the kitchen. And actually, freezing tomatoes isn’t that hard. It’s easier than canning. All it takes is a few hours on a Sunday afternoon to get the job done.

There are many different ways to store tomatoes. I prefer to freeze tomatoes because you don’t have to worry about sterilizing the jars the same way you do when you preserving food for the pantry shelf. Ideally, you want a large freezer, or even a spare, but I live in an apartment and still manage to squeeze plenty of jars into my tiny freezer.

I personally freeze the entire tomato, with the exception of the skin and core. I don’t worry about removing seeds. Some people do, some people don’t. It’s a complete personal preference.

I also freeze them two ways. Most of the tomatoes I puree. Some of the small paste tomatoes, however, I leave whole.

Also, you can freeze any tomato, but the big plum tomatoes are best.

So where to begin? First you need to prep your kitchen. Here’s what you need:

  • wide mouthed mason jars (any size will do)
  • a funnel (optional but it makes it a lot easier)
  • a large pot
  • a large bowl filled with ice water
  • a medium size bowl
  • a food processor (if pureeing)
  • a slotted spoon or spider skimmer
  • an extra bag of ice
  • plenty of dish towels

Directions:

  • Wash the jars and let them dry completely before using.
  • Bring a lot pot of water to a boil. 
  • Clean any dirt off of the tomatoes.
  • Cut a small X towards the bottom of each tomato. This makes it easier to peel.
  • Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water. You want to work in small batches. Only boil about 5-6 tomatoes at a time.
  • Boil them for a couple minutes. You’ll know they’re ready once the skin starts to peel back a little.
  • Remove them from the boiling water with a spider or slotted spoon and immediately drop them into the ice water.
  • Let the tomatoes cool for a couple minutes and then remove the skins. Also cut off the top and core each tomato. (I do it that same way I remove the stem from a strawberry. Just use a small knife to remove the hard, inner part of the tomato that is right below the stem.)
  • At the point, if you’re not pureeing, you can drop the tomatoes right into the jar. Or if you’re pureeing, place them into the food processor.
  • When pouring the tomatoes into the jar, be sure to leave a couple inches of space at the top. If you don’t leave room for expansion, the jar could crack in the freezer.
  • Repeat the previous steps with the rest of your tomatoes.
  • Let the jars cool before screwing the lids on and placing them in the freezer.

And now, some photos:

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My mom’s kitchen is currently being remodeled, so she came over to use mine. Two pots going at once.

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Ice bath:

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Tomatoes after they’ve been peeled:

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The jar on the left shows where you should stop.

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The yellow and orange tomatoes are the paste tomatoes that I froze whole.

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Rethinking the Freezer

The freezer is an essential tool for any cook interested in seasonal, homemade food. As you may have guessed, you won’t find frozen fish sticks and chicken nuggets in my freezer.

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Below is a list of my ideal freezer. Granted, some summers are busier than others, and I don’t always have time to freeze things such as tomatoes, but when possible, this is list of everything I like to have on hand:

  1. Chili Peppers. I don’t even remember the last time I bought a jalapeno from a grocery store. In Ohio, at the end of the summer, peppers are in abundance. I always buy a whole bunch at the end of the summer and freeze them along with any unused ones from my own backyard. Perfect to have on hand for winter chilies, sauces, soups, etc. And it’s not limited to jalapenos. All chili peppers work.
  2. Bell Peppers. Whether frozen whole or in slices, they freeze surprisingly well. I do a combination of both. Slices are wonderful for stir fries and pastas during the winter. Whole peppers are good for stuffing. And as with the chili peppers, in Ohio, they are in abundance at the end of the summer.
  3. Chicken and/or Vegetable Stock. Boxed stock does not even come close to comparing with homemade. Whenever I make homemade, I like to try to freeze some so that I have it on hand for quick weeknight dinners and sick days. I freeze them in various size containers so that if I only need a small amount, I don’t have to defrost a huge jar. I’ve also heard that you can freeze it in ice cube trays but have yet to try it.
  4. Breadcrumbs. Why buy breadcrumbs? Instead process stale bread and stick it in the freezer to have on hand.
  5. Beans. Often, when I cook beans, I make extra and stick them in the freezer to add to weeknight meals.
  6. Local Meat. Finally, a typical freezer food! Usually when I buy meat at the market, it’s frozen. The only challenge is remembering to think ahead and to take it out in time to defrost.
  7. Flour. Any flours that I don’t use often, I stick in the freezer, if I have space. It prevents bugs from getting into them.
  8. Waffles and/of Pancakes. Not the boxed kind. I’m talking homemade. I almost always make double batches and freeze the extras. Makes for a nice snack or quick Sunday morning breakfast.
  9. Peas. I love frozen peas. I add them to soups, rice dishes, pastas, and so on. Sometimes I even just eat them with butter and salt and pepper. A must have.
  10. Tomatoes. Towards the end of the summer and early fall, I start stocking up on tomatoes at the farmers’ market, especially Romas. Freezing them is simple. Either you can boil them in water for a couple minutes, remove the skins and then freeze them whole on a tray (move them to a storage bag after a few hours), or you can remove the skins, puree them and store them in jars in the freezer. Either way, frozen tomatoes are perfect for winter soups and stews and have much more flavor than canned tomatoes.
  11. Berries and Fruit. I’ll be honest. I always try to buy extra fruit during the summer and freeze it. I key word is “try.” I usually eat it all before I can freeze it.
  12. Other Farmers’ Market Produce: Green Beans freeze well. Corn (on the cob and off). Asparagus stalks for stock/soups.
  13. Corn Tortillas. I sometimes crave enchiladas. Corn tortillas freeze really well and are excellent to have on hand if you crave Mexican food as I do. Also good to make homemade chips.
  14. Sweets. Every so often, a sweet thing, such as Jeni’s Ice Cream, appears in my freezer. I really don’t know how it gets there. Also, leftover homemade cookies. If there are leftovers. Which isn’t often.

 

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Rethinking Your Pantry

In order to live a whole foods based lifestyle, you need to rethink your pantry. That means throwing away all of the addictive processed food and replacing it with ingredients that you can use to create meals. Let me phrase that another way. A meal shouldn’t come in a box or a can but rather a meal should be produced, in part, from things found in your pantry. And any thing in your pantry that you can sit down and eat mindlessly in front of the TV (chips, cookies, etc) needs to go.

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So what’s in my pantry? (Excuse the horrible glare in the above photo. And no, I’m not showing the entire pantry. It is my family’s pantry, so it’s a bit more crowded than most.) I buy bulk grains and beans whenever possible and store them in jars.   Here’s a list of ingredients I try to always have on hand.

  1. Rice. Rice can go a long way and create a variety of meals. It is a staple food in most cultures. I prefer long grain brown rice for general use, but also often have arborio rice on hand for risottos and sometime even wild rice or basmati for variety. 
  2. Dried Beans. I prefer the taste and texture of dried vs canned beans. Plus with dried beans, I don’t have to worry about how long the beans have been sitting in a potentially toxic can. Dried beans are simple to cook but do take planning ahead. My favorite: Great Northern beans, black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils.
  3. Canned Beans. I know I just said I prefer dried beans, but I think every pantry should also have at least one can of beans on hand at all times for last minute week day meals or sick days. Just be sure to buy a BPA free can that is also low in sodium.
  4. Whole Grains. In addition to rice, I always have oats on hand (and extra in my freezer). Also good to have on hand: faro, barley, cornmeal, couscous, bulgar wheat.
  5. Pasta. I’m part Italian, so of course I always have pasta on hand. I recommend always having at least one short pasta and one long pasta. I prefer whole wheat for most things, but also often have a good old fashioned white pasta on hand. Eggs noodles (especially Amish) are nice during the winter, as well.
  6. Boxed Stock. I’d much rather use homemade stock than boxed and always try to have some homemade in the refrigerator or freezer, but this doesn’t always happen. Boxed stock comes in handy for last minute meals and sick days. Just make sure to buy a low sodium brand that has good ingredients.
  7. Canned Tomatoes. This is one of the only canned products I always have on hand (except for during peak tomato season). If you have canned tomatoes, you can make pasta sauces, add it to soups and stews, or use it in rice dishes. Just beware: because tomatoes are so acidic, it is very important to buy BPA free canned tomatoes. I also recommend organic.
  8. Tomato Paste. You can’t make a good marina sauce without it. Plus it’s nice to add to soups and stews.
  9. Kosher and Sea Salt. Always have extra on hand, because there’s nothing worse than the moment when you go to add salt to your pasta water and realize you’re out.
  10. General Baking Ingredients. Baking powder. Baking soda. Flours. Sugars.
  11. Nuts and Dried Fruit. Use it to make trail mix and granola/energy bars. Add it to salads. Nuts are also wonderful in pestos. Just don’t snack on large amounts.
  12. Dark Chocolate. This is a personal one, but I’m sure there are others out there who crave the occasional chocolate. Whenever I’m craving chocolate, one square of dark chocolate (around 70%) is all I need to satisfy the craving. Though I prefer the taste of milk chocolate, since it’s sweeter, it makes me crave more and eat more. Dark chocolate also has those wonderful antioxidants that are lost in milk chocolate.

Of course there are other things that I sometimes have on hand, such as tortilla chips for salsa and guacamole or crackers for hummus, but for things such as this, I follow two general rules. 1) They must be made of pure, simple ingredients and 2) If it’s the type of thing that makes you want to sit down and eat an entire bag/box in one sitting, don’t buy it.

Other useful things:

  1. Coconut milk
  2. Curry paste
  3. Extra soy sauce
  4. Popcorn kernels (Not the microwave kind. That has toxins in it.)

 

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