Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Category: Pasta

Asparagus Risotto

For the above picture I slopped risotto onto a plate. The picture looks appealing, or so my modest visual aesthetic tells me. If I were to analyze the picture, I would tell you the cropped risotto–the right third left off the frame–as well as the plate, with strips of white and alternating colors curling behind the rice, make the shot a good one. But I will leave these thoughts to the professionals.

Food stylists and food photographers professionally–that is, for a profession, for a living–make food look good in pictures. Often food stylists work with tweezers on a single dish for hours. In extreme cases, four or five hours. What does this mean? It means that some food takes longer to style than it does to cook. It means that, while a food stylist is arranging chives at a 35 degree angle, hungry people in Ghana are eating clay. The plate then passes to the photographer. He or she snaps, using four grades of artificial light, 300 pictures and keeps two.

The above risotto took me thirty minutes to cook and two minutes to photograph. The reason I photograph food in the first place is to trick you into reading my writing. I can’t imagine that, before sitting down to a lunch of asparagus risotto, an Italian or anyone would sculpt the slop, take 400 pictures, and then eat the now-cold rice. Better to photograph the meal as is, to show what the food actually looks like, to ignore the patch of sunlight that circles through your kitchen from 1 to 5pm and makes food glow, and to focus on the eating.

Serves 4

3 cups    vegetable stock

¾ lb        asparagus

2 tbsp     olive oil

1 tbsp     unsalted butter

1             medium onion, chopped

1¼ cup   Arborio rice

¼ tsp      salt


½ cup    white wine

⅓ cup    grated Parmesan cheese

1) Put the veggie stock in a pot over high heat. While the stock creeps to a boil, half each asparagus spear. Prepare an ice bath with salted water in a large bowl. Plunge asparagus into boiling stock. After two minutes, remove spears with a slotted spoon and submerge them in the ice bath. Switch the heat to low and cover the stock. Let the asparagus and yourself chill for a few minutes. Drain the asparagus and pat the spears semi-dry.

2) Cut the spears’ top halves into ½-inch pieces. Set aside. For this step, it is essential that you eat as many of the asparagus pieces as you want. Take the spears’ bottom halves and cut them into ½-inch pieces. Put pieces from the bottom halves into a food processor with one tbsp olive oil. Purée and set aside.

3) Put butter, onion, and remaining 1 tbsp olive oil in a heavy pan over medium heat. Stirring often with a wooden spoon, let onion cook for five minutes, until the pieces turn amber. Add the Arborio rice. Stirring constantly, cook the rice for some three or four minutes, until the grains become translucent.

5) Are you still stirring? I hope so. Don’t stop. Add the salt and a shy grinding of pepper. Pour in the wine, continue to stir, and put your nose high above the pot. How good is the smell of wine cooking? Often I will walk my dog hours after dinner. By the time I return to my apartment, the wind coming in off the river has long erased the wine-smell from my mind. The lingering musk greets me as I open the door and toss  Shadow a treat (not risotto). It says, “Someone has cooked with wine here, and maybe you should find the opened bottle and pour a drink.” Keep stirring.

5) When the wine has all but evaporated, add a few tablespoons of the veggie stock. Keep stirring, tracing your spoon along the pot’s walls, cutting it figure-eight through the middle, and sliding it under the rice. When the stock has evaporated, add more. Stir until dry. Spoon in stock again. Repeat for a total of 18 to 23 minutes, adding the asparagus some five minutes before the rice is tender but toothsome.

6) Take the risotto off the heat. Stir in the cheese. Stir in the asparagus purée. Let risotto sit for a minute, then portion onto plates, drizzling olive oil and grating more cheese atop each pile. Eat.

Frittata of Leftover Pasta

Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side

1 cup    leftover pasta

1 tbsp   olive oil

4           large eggs

Salt + Pepper

Red pepper flakes

1) Remove the pasta from the fridge at least 30 minutes before cooking. Let the pasta stand on the countertop and warm to room temp.

2) Put a non-stick pan over medium-low heat. Slick the flat part of the pan’s surface with olive oil

3) Over a large bowl crack the eggs. Grind salt and pepper over the eggs, keeping in mind how peppery and salty and spicy your pasta was two nights ago. Add some red pepper flakes if you like. Whisk the eggy solution and, when well mixed, add the pasta and mix again.

4) Pour the egg-pasta liquid into the pan. Use a spoon to spread the pasta, for the noodles tend to gather in one area of the pan, and we want to evenly distribute them. Cover the pan. Let sit for 8-10 minutes, peeking under the lid when the mood strikes.

5) When the egg has mostly congealed and resembles an omelet but for a shallow pool on top, it is time for the flip. Place a large plate next to the pan. Carefully slide a spatula under the omelet and loosen it from the sides and bottom of the pan. (We used a heady dose of oil to ease the pain this step can bring.) Now, tilting the pan to the plate, use the spatula to transfer the omelet to the plate.

6) Breathe. How many times have I messed up the flip? Too many.

7) Invert the pan over the omelet. Put one hand on the panhandle and the other under the plate. Pressing plate and pan together, invert the plate in one quick motion, landing the pan right-side-up on the still-hot burner. Cook the omelet uncovered for another 30 seconds. Transfer to the plate. Eat.

Winter Marinara

When I visit the house where I was raised, the smell of simmering tomatoes often greets me before my family does. There it hangs, thinly as I twist the doorknob, and thickly in the yellow hallway, an assault on the senses. If you focus you can see it, the smell. It’s the same smell that, when I was a teenager, would awake me in the late morning, though my room was a floor above the kitchen and on the house’s far side.

Aromatics, tomatoes, and a long simmer give the sauce its strong smell. If you dissect the inner framework of a wall or the sandy shingles of that house, you will find, I am sure, the residue of garlic and plum tomatoes. If you live in an apartment, as I do, expect your neighbors to glance at you in the hallway with the dim hope of a dinner invite.

I use canned tomatoes for a winter marinara. We can shape the sauce’s character by tinkering with these tomatoes. For a chunky and rustic sauce, pour the plum tomatoes and their juices into the blender and pulse 5 or 6 times. For a silky smooth sauce, run the blender for 30 seconds. Also, I add no herbs. We can add other flavors later depending on what we’re cooking.

Four quarts of sauce result from the long  simmer. I recommend trying the recipe on a Sunday, for the leftover sauce will give you nice momentum into the week. On Sunday night, I’ll toss the stuff with pasta and flash-fried calamari and have a main course. You can remix the leftover sauce into eggplant parm, pizza, bean and zucchini dishes, the beginnings of a tomato-based soup, or whatever you want.

Makes 1 Quart

¼ cup             olive oil

3                    medium onions, chopped

4                    garlic cloves, minced

1 28-oz. can   tomato purée

1 28-oz. can   whole plum tomatoes and their juices, pulsed 5 or 6 times

1) Put olive oil and onions in a large, non-reactive pot over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, cook for 10-12 minutes, until onions are translucent.

2) Add garlic. Stirring often, and being mindful not to burn the garlic, for the fragments will fast turn brown and bitter, cook the garlic for some 90 seconds, until pieces are golden.

3) Add tomato purée. Add the pulsed plum tomatoes from the blender. Stir. When the sauce starts to simmer, switch the heat to medium-low. Let slowly simmer for three to four hours, stirring at 10-15 minute intervals, and dipping in bread when you wish.

A Farmer’s Pasta in Six Ingredients

“Guanciale” comes from guancia, the Italian word for cheek. Guancia also means pillow, for where do you rest your cheek at night? Guanciale, a strip of meat, comes from a pig’s cheek that has been cured. The cut is some 90% fat. I seldom eat meat, but in the hour before I do, something like guanciale arrives on my cutting board.

My favorite pasta calls for guanciale, spaghetti, onions, olive oil, tomato purée, and Parmesan cheese. Should you be unable to find guanciale, pancetta can substitute. But Guanciale gives the pasta a deeply animal flavor that takes you to a place out of time, to a sad barn in the hills, to the campfire of Stone Age hunters, to a savage and dirty place where tofu and cream-white chicken have never been tasted.

I learned to cook this pasta in Italy, from the owner of a farm near Bologna, where I worked a few summers ago. “A farmer’s pasta,” he often said while preparing the dish. (It appears on menus as spaghetti amatriciana.) Here’s his version:

And mine:

And a recipe:

Spaghetti Amatriciana (“a farmer’s pasta”)

Serves 2

1 tbsp   olive oil

1/4 lb   guanciale, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1            small onion, chopped

1 cup     tomato purée (or crushed tomatoes, etc.)

1/2 lb    spaghetti

Parmesan cheese to taste

1) Put two paper towels on a plate beside your stove. Sauté guanciale in olive oil over medium heat, stirring often. After three or four minutes, when the guanciale is browned  and a pool of grease coats the pan, transfer guanciale with a slotted spoon to the paper towels. Use paper towels to lazily wrap the guanciale.

2) Sauté onion in the guanciale’s grease for three minutes over medium-low heat. Pour in tomato purée. Let simmer, stirring occasionally.

3) Cook the spaghetti in salted water (about 1 tsp. salt) until al dente. Drain spaghetti. Add to simmering sauce. Add guanciale. Kill heat. Stir well. Sprinkle Parmesan onto the pasta. Eat.