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Simple Pasta Done Terribly - What Did I Do Wrong? Share your stories!

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Long time lurker here, first post!

Just got done cooking one of the worst meals I've had in a while (although I screwed up some chicken curry the other week...), even though I had been waiting for it all day and had fun while cooking it. My question is, what did I do wrong? And while we're at it, what have you recently screwed up that seemed...unscrewuppable...?

I made Tallarines with bechamel (aromatics-carrots, onion bits, bay leaf, thickened with a roux), sauteed onions, garlic and mushrooms.

But the tallarines were way overcooked (do they cook fast compared to spaghetti?), the bechamel was like elmer's glue and bland, the onions were tough and chewy, the garlic nonexistent and the mushrooms were also tough and almost bitter. WTF

I'll do a quick rundown of the process so you can pinpoint how badly I noobed it:

-Heated pot of water, salted.
-Diced onions and mushrooms (the mushrooms were moist in the refrigerator and I had to wash them quickly to remove some dirt)
-Peeled garlic
-Heated saute pan, added onions to sweat with a bit of olive oil
-Added pasta to water
-Added mushrooms. Tossed in a bit of red wine vinegar (mistake?) to flavor them and the onions.
-Had to continually add olive oil as it seemed like the onions and mushrooms were just eating it up.
-Heated the milk (around 1/2 cup) on low with carrots, onions and bay leaf (forgot to salt, doh!)

-Thinly sliced garlic (very thinly), added to pan
-Checked pasta, already overdone! Drained and let sit over pot in colander.
-Threw 2 tbsp butter in pan for roux, added ~2 tbsp flour, let sit for a few minutes (not browned).
-Added roux to milk (too much roux?) after removing aromatics, once it cooled it got thicker and I thought it had the consistency I wanted.
-Added bechamel and pasta to pan with onions and mushrooms, watched as a monster glob of pasta formed.
-Hastily chopped parsley, threw it together and couldn't finish it after 3 bites.

So...care to school a youngin'?

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  1. Sounds like you should be using recipes for a while. What didn't you do wrong?

    5 Replies
    1. re: chefj

      Thanks for the constructive criticism! :P [/sarcasm]

      1. re: Afilador

        It was not meant as a insult. I think that you need to learn the basics and that is best done with reference.
        Using recipes is a great place to start to get your bearings when learning to cook. It gives you basic instructions and teaches you how things work.
        Well written recipes will help you with timing and technique. With out having to waste food, time and money.

        1. re: chefj

          I agree. As I continuously (fruitlessly for 30+ years) tell my husband: Don't try to wing it if you don't know WTF you're doing.

          1. re: pikawicca

            pika, I'm 63 and am a recipe user almost all the time. I know you do a lot also. The ingredients all sound good, just not used right IMO.

            1. re: c oliver

              I think that a good recipe is a valuable resource that should be respected. If you want to branch out and be creative, fine and dandy. But if you don't understand the basics, you're probably going to crash and burn.

    2. Fresh pasta or dried? If fresh, you should boil for 2 or 3 minutes tops.

      Once you add liquid to the pan, the sauteing is done. Mushrooms are notorious for soaking up oil, but if the oil is sufficiently heated, it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

      IMO, what you made was milk gravy with overcooked pasta. Next time, if you want something similar, here's what I'd do.

      Get the water started. Slice mushrooms thinly, saute in butter and olive oil. Add thinly sliced onions and saute a few minutes more. Add a garlic clove or two, whole or just cracked. Chop parsley. Cook the pasta, drain, saving a little of the cooking water. Grate a bit of lemon zest if you like, then toss into the the pasta with the mushrooms/onions/butter, adding a bit of cooking liquid and a splash of cream. Throw in some frozen peas or finely chopped spinach, some parsley. Grate in a bit of nutmeg and add a handful or two of grated pecorino cheese. Adjust seasoning.

      And take heart -- at least it was just for you! I've come home to a pot of chili with raw, hard beans in it and guests coming over in 15 minutes!

      7 Replies
      1. re: LauraGrace

        Thank you for the tips, I appreciate it. I'll try it again soon and see what happens....

        1. re: Afilador

          I never wash mushrooms; just brush the dirt off with a very slightly damp paper towel (I like Viva because they don't have "lint" or shred). I saute mushrooms in butter with a little olive oil. Don't add salt until near the end. I would not have added red wine to them; I like them to have crispy edges.

          Try a recipe in a good Italian cookbook...like Marcella Hazan (you can google and get quite a few recipes w/out buying a book). Follow the recipe step by step. (Her Bolognese recipe is great but takes a lot of time...it's easy...just follow step by step...but...takes a lot of time.)

          1. re: walker

            Just a little tidbit re: washing mushrooms - not washing mushrooms is nothing but a long-standing old wives' tale.

            Anyone here see Alton Browns episode on just this? He took 3 exact portions of mushrooms & weighed them before & after soaking in water, rinsing under running water, & just wiping. Soaking - yes, they did absorb water. Rinsing under the tap? No appreciable difference from wiping with a damp towel except for the much longer amount of time & less pristine end product wiping took.

            Bottom line? Rinse your mushrooms under running tap water & be done with it.

            1. re: walker

              I actually think mushrooms end up developing a more concentrated flavor if you throw in the salt early. For me, the key is high heat, no overcrowding, and letting them sit undisturbed for a while until they start to brown on the bottom. I prefer shallots b/c they actually taste good along the entire raw=> burnt spectrum, so they're more forgiving than either onions (which taste awful undercooked) or garlic (which taste awful overcooked), and I throw them sometime after the mushrooms start browning.

              To the OP - you could still add red wine vinegar at the end, after the mushrooms have become caramelized and concentrated, and it would make a delicious appetizer, either alone or on toast. I could see them being good with pasta is if maybe you had a rich, braised meat sauce, but I don't think it was a good idea to put them in a creamy sauce. Without the vinegar, those mushrooms (maybe flavored with some thyme), grated parmesan, and a little pasta water, plus some of that parsley would give you one of my favorite pasta dishes, esp if you're using fresh pasta. I just throw the cooked pasta into the pan with the mushrooms so the pasta can wipe up some of the delicious caramelized bits.

              re: bechamel - the proportions you used were off - the highest proportion of flour to liquid I've ever seen for a bechamel meant for pasta is 2 Tbsp flour to 1 cup liquid. Yours was heading into souffle base territory. And, as others have already noted, bechamel's really for baked pasta dishes.

              1. re: daveena

                Good advice! I tried it again tonight with MANY corrections, and it came out decent (nothing to write home about, though).

                Corrections:

                -Used higher quality pasta, cooked al dente
                -86'd the bechamel (duh), settled for a white wine reduction (peppercorns, bay leaf, shallot) with heavy cream and a little butter. I guess it was kind of like a buerre blanc but with cream and a lot less butter. Not sure if this is designed to go with pasta either....
                -THINLY sliced mushrooms, sauteed in butter and salted
                -Threw in a bit of lemon zest, finely grated parmesan, basil leaves and a little olive oil on top

                So...any corrections to the corrections? Apparently I was in the mood for spaghetti carbonara because I really wanted a creamy white sauce...I should really stick to the classics for now.

                1. re: Afilador

                  I think you have too many flavors in one dish. I would split them into:

                  1) white wine + shallots + cream + mushrooms + parmesan - instead of doing a white wine reduction, deglaze your mushrooms with white wine, let it boil down, then add your cream. Less work, and I think it would pair with the pasta better.

                  2) cream + parmesan + lemon zest + basil + green spring vegetables (peas or asparagus - I'd only do this in season) - I would just barely cook the veggies in an olive oil/butter mix, flavored with spring onions, then toss with hot pasta and parmesan and a tiny bit of cream, if at all. Zest and finely shredded basil at the end.

                  1. re: daveena

                    Good point. Most italian dishes seem to be pretty simple with 3-5 ingredients. Guess I need to calm down a little with the flavors...

        2. Poor thing! I hate throwing out food, but there's nothing that can be done with overcooked pasta. It's worth pitching and starting over. The vinegar was a mistake. Also, a bechamel is great in oven-baked pastas, but weird on a tossed pasta. Diced mushrooms would soak up all oil in sight (and again, weird in tossed pasta - are you sure this recipe wasn't supposed to baked?) - thinly sliced, as LauraGrace says, would help. Her pasta sounds like it would be easy and delicious.

          1 Reply
          1. re: NYprof

            Hah! No I'm afraid I was in fact "winging it" without a recipe or any tried-and-true tested idea for reference...but at least I had fun (making it, not eating it) and learned a lot. All the advice makes so much sense now...

          2. Just because the water is boiling doesn't mean you need to throw the pasta in. I concentrate on my sauce first even if I have to add more water to my pasta pot as I'm concentrating on my sauce, no matter what kind it is.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Barbara76137

              Great point, Barbarawiththebuckles :) I totally ignore those instructions that start with "While the
              pasta is cooking." I get everything done or at a holding point and then cook the pasta.

              Note to OP: Good for you for posting and admitting that you had a failure. We all do. Less often the more we cook but we all still do. Chowhound is the greatest resource I've ever seen for help. I've learned more in three years here than a lifetime PC (pre-CH). Stay active and let's hear about the next time that is hopefully more successful. BTW, I second whoever rec'd Hazan's recipes.

              1. re: Barbara76137

                Yes! This is exactly what I did this time around, so I was able to pinpoint when the pasta was done.

              2. Keep a cupfull of pasta cooking water back from when you drain the pasta. Add this to the drained pasta just before you stir in the sauce - it will help the sauce coat the pasta and stop the Pasta Glob of Doom from forming.