I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 6 of 100.
My mother is Italian. She’s got that good olive skin that tans stupidly well and she grew up with sexy glossy black hair like Annette Funicello (whom I know about only because she is also Italian and my mother wanted me to know about all the Italian hotties). I grew up obsessed with Mom’s Italian heritage, and absolutely desperate to go to Venice. (I believed I was fated to marry a singing gondolier.*)
My mother was the primary food-maker in our household, and my dad loudly loved everything she cooked — a quality that Mom said was very important in a man. She mostly made pasta, of course. She often made it with one of those silver cranky pasta-makers that lived in a thin cardboard box in the cabinet below the coffee machine. She’d do the sauce and she’d work on it all day, and then my sister Alexis sometimes helped her flatten this yellowy egg dough through the machine, and the two of them looked just like a commercial for well-adjusted Italian family living.
However. Despite my longing for Venice and interest in Italian celebrities, I hated — and I mean HATED — pasta. Pasta, spaghetti, ravioli, whatever. The whole genre: I hated it. I hated tomato sauce and how it often had big slimy chunks in it. I hated the rubbery texture of spaghetti and how you had to slither it up with your lips like you were sucking on long worms. I hated the whole experience of spaghetti nights, which I’m sure had my mother wondering if maybe I’d been switched at the hospital or something. I always made a quesadilla in the microwave instead.
This became a problem as I got older and refused to give up my childish vegetarian antics. Since I hated meat more than I hated spaghetti, I was doomed any time I went to any kind of “function,” because the vegetarian option was almost always overcooked pasta. (Sometimes it was a portobello cap, and sometimes it was a “tofu steak” — which is just a block of wet tofu that has been mercilessly steamed and topped with something flavorless and red.) I never wanted to appear rude, but I also HATED PASTA. Once, at a high school leadership supper, I slowly moved buttered noodles from my plate into my purse, so at least it would appear that I was eating them. Then I had to throw away the whole purse without ever opening it again, because if there’s one thing worse than pasta, it is pasta that has been suffocating inside a purse for three hours.
At some point in college, I decided I would need to get over my hatred of pasta. College was an important time for my palate, actually. Whereas I had spent my childhood eating quesadillas (see above) and grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese and slices of cheese on bread and just regular old cheese in a pile, I had gone vegan in high school, and food options suddenly seemed so spare. I learned to like such things as vegetables! and whole grains! and falafel! My world expanded. And when vegan pickings were slim at the dining hall, sometimes, believe it or not, I’d go with the pasta/marinara sauce option that was a fixture at the far counter.
But while I tolerated pasta, I never sought it out. In New Orleans, living with gluten-free roommates, pasta disappeared from the menu entirely. It wasn’t until I met Luke, who told me that, heartbreakingly (for me), pasta was among his favorite foods, that I really gave the noodle a chance. Am I ashamed that I forced myself to change because of a man? Yes. But, to be fair to me, I often force myself to change because of a mean co-worker, or because of a cat. I am MORE ashamed of being a general doormat in my day-to-day life. So yay feminism.
I learned that pasta is not about pasta, really: it’s about sauce. I learned how to make vegan pesto (with always three times the number of garlic cloves they tell you to use), and I learned out to make vegan puttanesca (I know that this is just ONLY FISH, but I make a version with olives and capers that is very good). I learned that if you’re making anything red and saucy, you can make it a lot better by dumping half a bottle of hot sauce into it. People think you have mastered the flavors, when in fact you have only mastered the flavor of Tabasco. Over time, I came not only peaceably coexist with frequent pasta, but occasionally I almost craved pasta. I know. How the tides do turn.
Recently, I came home and found that Luke had given me a surprise present: it was a pasta maker in a thin cardboard box that was a lot like my mom’s pasta machine that I so vehemently abhorred as a vulnerable child-person. It was the kind of present you buy for someone else, but actually you kind of just want the present for yourself, and since you live with the person, you can kill two birds with one stone. But I’m not complaining: surprise gifts are my love language and I honestly don’t care if they’re literal trash from the actual garbage, so long as the trash made you think about me.
In general, you need eggs to make pasta, and I do not eat eggs. You do not, however, definitely need a pasta-maker. My advice would be to try pasta from scratch with some parchment paper and a rolling pin first, and if you dig it, go ahead and invest. The pasta-maker is super fun; it turns dinner prep into an exercise in reminiscing on how great Play-Doh was.
We learned a lot through trial and error. (Mostly Luke learned a lot; I usually complained I had too much work to do while Luke banged out the dough.) The main tips and tricks to know are these:
- In lieu of eggs, we use pumpkin puree. This works great, and it makes me believe that any squash puree would do. Or even bananas, if you wanted dessert pasta. (And who wouldn’t?)
- Most pasta recipes will tell you to use semolina flour. We found that a combination of semolina flour and all purpose is WAY better. Apparently there is a fancy pasta flour that’s JUST FOR PASTA called 00 flour; we don’t have the time or money for that, but if you do, go for it.
- A little wet is better than a little dry, but you ultimately want the texture to be pliable. Seriously, it’s a lot like Play Doh when it’s perfect.
- Integral to know: You don’t cook fresh pasta all at once. We made this tragic error early in the process and it resulted in a brain-like pasta lump that we ate and pretended was normal. You cook like five pieces at a time in boiling water for 2-5 minutes per batch. This takes forever. Nothing that’s good doesn’t take forever. Get used to it.
- If your pasta is too soggy and the texture doesn’t feel firm enough to you, run it under icy cold water for a few seconds; it’ll firm right up.
Pasta is not good for you, and if you are lucky enough to hate it, then it’s difficult to understand why you would make an effort to change. The reason is that you get to love one more thing when you love pasta; and loving food is one of life’s greatest gifts and pleasures. To love pasta is to love a cheap, readily available, saucy food that every person on earth who is romantically pursuing you will someday try to make for you. And you can show them how much better you are when you demonstrate that boxed noodles are for suckers.
*In this gondola fantasy, I am a sexy young Venetian who lives in a perfectly maintained canal-side apartment. Every morning, I hop out of my fluffy bed, eat my fluffy eggs, and leave the apartment to get into a gondola waiting for me outside my door. The handsome gondolier named Vincent wants to tell me how beautiful I am, and how great my drawings are (because I am always just riding around in the gondola doing drawings), but he is too shy. AND THEN ONE DAY —.