Friday, October 27, 2006

Penne Alla Eroteme

Okee! This is something I have never done before on this blog, but there is always a first. Last night was a night of honour, privilege and satisfaction. Mom permitted me to take over the kitchen (honour and privilege) to turn out a dinner (to our satisfaction). I don't think I can put to words how nervous I was cooking for mom. It had to be good and good enough for her. One deep breath and I started rolling...

Let me start with a few notes about how I cook. I am not a manageable cook. What that means, is that what I cook can not always be reproduced nor is there any predictable order in there. Mom on the other hand is a fantastic cook and very manageable. She knows exactly where to find each and every ingredient (because she leaves them there after use). But one thing we both have in common (and she was glad last night that I inherited her genes!): we talk to our food. Now this is not mere ramble, I assure you. You need to understand how each ingredient blends and their history. Some veggies don't get along with each other. Some of them are friendly with nearly everyone (like tomatoes). Some have a nasty past and you'd do well to lend them a sympathetic ear. Understand them, talk to them. That is the key to every well flavoured relationship. :-)
Secondly, I hate reading out of a recipe book. The whole idea jars in my head. Its like someone else betting on my tastes. Its like trusting your body to a person who has never seen you before (even though they call him a doctor). Urgggh! Read as much as you want but when you cook, trust your gut (well, you'd better as it is at the receiving end) or you'll end up like the bookworm on his wedding night, busy flipping through Vatsyana's tome.
(Yes, Oh! Yesssss!
Honey, woah honey. Wait a minute!
Okee, now move slightly to the right and throw your ankle behind your neck. No, the left one!)
Never get carried away on the spice regime. Be tender and understand what they want (you aren't dousing yourself in red paprika, are you?). Sometimes it's just a dash of salt and pepper and sometimes it's rock-n-roll.
Lastly, although I am a strict vegetarian, these also apply to a non-vegetarian meal. You really need to listen to the chicken breast and realise what it's dying wish was: stuffed and cooked in soy sauce or baked with peppers and red wine sprinkled on it. That's the problem with non-vegetarian food; you are always dealing with something that once upon a time moved and had a mind of its own. Well, deal with it.
So, last night found me running the entire concert through my head before I cracked my knuckles and dived in. This is what I recall of it....Heaven is indeed in white...
Cooking pasta is simple and hence, very easily done wrong. You need to boil the water and add salt to it (I am told that in the good ol' days, Italians used sea water. People near the Marina beach can do so at their own peril.). When the water rolls, slide in the pasta. Don't ask me how much water for how much pasta. Listen to them. I go by my senses which at one point will tell me "Enough". The rolling will slow down now. After about 5 minutes you can slide in long strips of red and yellow capsicum (no they are not the same as painted green capsicum. Listen to them) and let the entire thing cook. I used penne. For more information about various kinds of pasta, check this out:
While the pasta is getting cooked, start work on the sauce. The sauce is the life breath of pasta. Do it right and be nice to the pasta, and you have a wonderful meal and a bonus smile on your face while you go to bed. I had played around with a lot of red sauces so I wanted to try white.
Have a cup of grated cheese ready. In India you could choose between cheddar or parmesan depending on availability. Cheese spread won't work. If you love cheese, go here:

In a wok, heat a slim slab of butter (preferably non-salted) and while its melting, pour in some olive oil (Eh!? Did you say gingely oil? May the sky fall on your head!) to prevent the butter from browning. A thick, yellow unctuous colloid will be formed soon and when its happy and bubbling, slide in the finely chopped onions (you always slide in ingredients into hot liquids). Saute the onions and when they are just right (golden brown, like the sunlight which kisses a baby's bottom) sprinkle some oregano and rosemary (herbs). How much? Listen to them. Rosemary talks to you through your nose. When its just right, you'll know. In case you have a cold or a blocked nose, don't cook. Have a bowl of hot soup and crash for the day. Don't make cooking a routine.
So where were we? Aaah! Lovely rosemary. Keep stirring till all the ingredients are well mixed. Now did I add the cornflour before the herbs or after? Hmmm. Not sure. I don't think it matters. Add a little cornflour to the simmering (oh! all of this is done on a low flame) spices and stir in order to avoid lumps forming. Now a dash of fresh basil (or even dried ones) will make a happy family on the stove.
Garlic is avoided in our homes (being the orthodox Vaishnava kinds) but I swear by the bulbs. Anyway, Lord Vishnu was behind the origin of garlic (another post on that some day). But seriously, I cannot live without adding garlic to pasta. Its essential and mom shrugged her shoulders last night. Peel the garlic and slice the top. Place it on a flat hard surface and cover it with the flat side of a butcher's knife (or wooden spatula). Smack it hard but with love. Crushed garlic is the best. In case you cannot find it or consider the entire operation banal, ginger-garlic paste is a fine option. Honestly, I hope you have tried the mixture before in order to understand the proportion of ginger in there. If you are opening the pack straight in here, god save you.
So slide in the crushed garlic or paste (it might coagulate, so keep stirring) and cook for a couple of minutes. Take it off the flame but keep stirring it.
Now comes zee cream. Pour in the fresh cream and keep stirring the sauce. Ensure that the sauce is of a uniform consistency. Use a perforated spoon if you like but just ensure the consistency. Once it is smooth and flowing like a silt river at its mouth, put it back on the flame (yes, low flame). Keep some fresh cream aside and maybe dilute it a bit. We might need it. While stirring, add red paprika. Sprinkle would be the right word when introducing herbs. Anyway, keep stirring. Please don't be lax now. If you got this far, it might be worth the extra effort.
By now, the pasta should be cooked. Pour off the hot water and pour in some cold water on the pasta and capsicum strips. Keep them aside and let them stand. Nothing more to do here.
While stirring the sauce, sprinkle the shredded cheese on the sauce. Add little cheese and then stir in order to avoid lumps forming. Once you feel that the added cheese has blended well, add some more. I was happy with 3/4th cup of cheese and I stopped. Keep stirring. If the sauce is too thick now, you might want to add the diluted creaming that was set aside. Keep stirring, baby! That's the way to go.
Drain the pasta and toss it well in a large vessel. Pour in the sauce on top and mix well with a wooden spatula. How does one know when the pasta is al dente? You can inspect with a spoon. It should not be overcooked nor undercooked. Some people prefer cooking it just short and then cooking it again with the sauce. I don't think it feels right. Its like a marriage. Both come together fairly complete and the other completes them. But, you know by now how to listen to your pasta, so follow whatever it says.
After mixing it very well, cover the vessel and let it stand for some time. This ensure that the pasta retains the aroma and the cheese cools to create the right texture between pieces of penne. Why I choose penne for this is a simple reason. When mixing the sauce, some of it enters the cavity of the penne and rewards a good cook with the occasional surprise of a stuffed penne. Mmmmmm. Don't try this with thin and fragile pasta.

Bruschettas work well as starters and we had them last night (the tomatoes you see are fresh uncooked ones which were in excess after using them for the bruschettas. So I sprinkled them over the pasta to add colour. You needn't do the same). Mom rolled them one by one into her mouth and then announced her verdict.
"Hmmm. Perfect! Nothing in excess. Nothing lacking!"

Accompaniment to pasta can take the form of soft western instrumental (preferably wind instruments). Please do not have anything distracting while you eat pasta (yes, even Baywatch is a no-no). I think Mohd. Rafi ballads might also suit the texture of pasta, but surely not Maharajapuram Santhanam (he doesn't seem to blend with anything save curd rice). But as they always say... Listen to them. :-)


  1. Mmmm. Mouthwatering description that delights!

    # A book is inside you, Eroteme, on how a person should be when he cooks / on how to cook. Get it published. Of course, keeping to the logical sequence of things in life you need to WRITE it first. Just do it.
    Little posts don't satisfy...

  2. Oh! I loved this post :)
    You have explained so beautifully :) I liked the idea of talking to food... I do that too... But I don't do that loud for the fear of being laughed at... But now I am am happy there are lots of people like me :D

    Is it possible to fedex the Pasta to US? It really looks/sounds YUMMMY ...;-)?

  3. Dear P,
    Glad you like it. The problem is that there seem to be several books inside me and they are all in loose sheets (without page numbers). I suppose when I was born, some brat shuffled them all together and I have spent the last quarter century and more in trying to sort them out... :-) Till they are done, please do permit little posts. Please. :-)

    Dear S,
    Glad you loved this post. Well, I don't talk to food aloud unless there is no one at home (but, when there is no one at home, most of my behaviour is not social ;-) I could fedex it, but there are two problems:
    1. I don't trust them to not taste it.
    2. I would prefer that the only fungus on the pasta is button mushrooms soaked in lemon juice and cooken in white wine. I am not sure I can ensure that! :-)

  4. Hi E,

    A fine day before we leave this planet again... we shall dine together.

    Till then, ta da... and i'll make do with ready-made ITC pasta treat! ;-)

  5. ah, i use penne too. there's something about its tubular nature..

    pasta, jazz and bordeaux!! That's my combo. :)

  6. Dear AB,
    ITC Pasta treat! :-O God ssave mankind... Sure, we will definitely dine some fine day.

    Dear B,
    Hmmm. Jazz and Pasta. Must try that, but the Jazz beats demand something tangy and spicy to accompany it, doesn't it? Jazz balads are fine...

  7. Tenacity10:31 PM

    Mmm, sounds yummy ... almost as good as the pasta last night in Parma! (although to be fair: they made it from scratch that afternoon, and nothing can compete with fresh pasta!).

  8. mmm..pasta is one of my favs..the pic looks really yummy i must say.
    loved the style in this one..

  9. Dear T,
    :-) Welcome here. Glad you liked it.

    Dear MR,
    Welcome here. Glad you liked the style... :-)