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Diagnose My Flat-Tasting Pasta

I chopped some meat cut off a couple chicken thighs, and tossed that plus the meaty bones into a hot Cuisinart 3-1/2-Quart saute pan containing a tablespoon of olive oil and half a chopped onion sauteed soft.

I added two carrots sliced fine, sprinkled in a good amount of pepper, some salt, Spanish smoked paprika, and some Penzey's crushed jalapeƱo.

I let it sautee a while, then added some Trader Joe's chicken stock and covered (probably too soon; see note at bottom)

Meanwhile, I started boiling a couple handfuls of small-ish pasta.

After a few mins, I added (to the saute pan) some bite-sized cut-up asparagus and broccolini, and grated in a good amount of fresh ginger. I added more chicken broth, which unfortunately cooled the pan. It took a while to get back to simmer. Covered again.

I cooked the pasta a minute short, drained most of the water, and threw pasta and a few TBS of cooking water into the saute pan. I added a bit of sherry vinegar, cranked the heat, and stirred aggressively for a minute. And served (finished with a drizzle of some good EVOO).

And...it was just ok. Like every pasta dish I've ever made, it was flat and zingless. No Italian soul at all (and I grew up in an Italian nabe....thought I was Italian, in fact, for most of my childhood).

Can anyone figure out where I went wrong? I know I could have added garlic (I was out of it), mushrooms...there were lots of things I could have added to make it a slightly different dish. But I've added garlic and other stuff in the past, to little effect. So I'm asking a bigger question: where am I going wrong, generally?

Two observations on my end: I regret killing the simmer with all that cold chicken broth (I should have added more gradually), and I probably should have gone further with the chicken/onion saute, and deglazed before adding broth and finishing with a braise.

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  1. Are you salting your pasta cooking water? It should have enough salt to taste right without being "salty."

    In The Elements of Cooking, Michael Ruhlman writes: "pasta water should taste like properly seasoned soup."

    4 Replies
    1. re: GH1618

      I need to be careful with salt. Are you saying that given a choice between being stingy with salt in the pasta water and being stingy with it in the toppings, I should opt for the latter?

      1. re: Jim Leff

        I understand the problem with salt, and am conservative with it myself. But you have to have enough salt in the pasta water to remove the "flat" taste. Then you can cut back or eliminate the salt in the sauce. So yes, I would get the plain pasta to come out tasting right, then adjust the sauce accordingly.

        My understanding about over-consumption of salt is that it tends to come from commercial foods, not home cooking. Things like canned soup and V-8 juice have way too much salt.

        1. re: GH1618

          I agree. Fresh homemade food that is salted just enough shouldn't be a problem for most people. The pasta water needs to be salted. If you don't salt the water, even a lot of extra salt in the sauce/topping won't seem like enough. Also, clearly much of the salt that you put in the water gets poured down the drain - the pasta will only soak up a bit of it and as a result not taste flat. Also, your garlic and mushroom ideas would add a lot to this dish.

          1. re: sandylc

            Talk to your doctor - there may be another salt that you CAN use.

            (and I'm with the rest -- run with Hispanic...or run with Asian...or run with Italian...but those spices wouldn't make my list of winning combinations)

    2. You might want more color on that onion. I know one pot meals are convenient, but I'd do the vegetables as a side instead of all in the sauce.

      3 Replies
      1. re: babette feasts

        Yeah, like I said, I realized I shouldn't have cut to braise so early. Should have sauteed the hell out of that meat and onion, deglazed, and THEN introduced the broth and veggies.

        1. re: Jim Leff

          You have correctly diagnosed your problem, I think. Developing a good fond would have given you far more flavor. I do not salt pasta water if I am using salty ingredients in the sauce. With prepared chicken stock being reduced in the sauce, I would not have used, or missed, salt in cooking the pasta. I too try to eliminate as much salt from my cooking as is feasible.

          1. re: greygarious

            It was low-salt chicken stock, sorry! ;(

            I've decided to pay a visit my guru, Mrs. Signorini, the best Italian chef I know. She cooks without salt. I'll specifically see what she does with pasta. I'd like to link to my article on Mrs. Signorini, but I've been asked not to, so I'll clumsily paste in the full text below, even though it'd be digressive to the thread. Unfortunately, you will not see the photographs, which are key.

            Lunch at Tony's Mom's House

            Back in 1997, I started keeping an online diary of my meals on Chowhound, called "What Jim Had for Dinner". It was perhaps the first food blog, and the following was one of the earliest entries.

            Important Note: the photos were taken years later and do not match the dishes described in the text. You can see more photos of Mrs. Signorini's work here.

            Friday, December 26, 1997: Tony's Mother (meatless Friday)

            I was invited by my mechanic and friend Tony Signorini to enter Heaven...the hallowed kitchen of his mother, Mrs. Signorini.

            Over the course of my five year friendship with Tony I'd been fortunate enough to try--strictly on the fly--a few things cooked by his mom: things like frittata heroes dropped off at the garage by Tony's sister, simple pastas nibbled with plastic forks from atop oil drums, a chunk or two of firey roast chicken while racing to the junkyard. But Tony, a neighborhood fixture in Astoria, has lots of friends (Pakistani taxicabs, greasers in low-riders, and old ladies in Oldsmobiles pass by his garage all day honking horns and yelling "TONY!!"), and he can't invite EVERYBODY home for lunch. Yesterday I got lucky.
            Astoria was Italian before the Greeks arrived, and the Signorini family dates from those days. The area's no longer an Italian enclave, but their apartment is pure Italy; no English spoken, mama (elderly but beautiful as a Botticelli painting) stirring pots, taciturn dad in undershirt, kids underfoot being hollered at and embraced...sometimes simultaneously. Mrs. Signorini has culinarily assimilated only as much as she's had to, mostly with ingredients. But when she tells me she uses Carolina rice, her pronunciation of the brand name makes it sound positively imported.

            Mrs. Signorini never adds salt, and you don't miss it. She also doesn't load her cooking with garlic...or with anything else. The word "simple" is her favorite word; simple ingredients, simple techniques, simple flavors. Simple life. Her cooking has nothing to do with the bold lusty flavors New Yorkers expect from Italian food; rather, it consists of unfooled-with ingredients presented healthily (I doubt Mrs. Signorini knows anything about modern nutrition, but purely through wisdom she's prepared health food for decades). The soup tasted of ultra refined scrumptiousness; a touch of barley and small cubed vegetables, the broth neither weak nor potent. Middle-ground. Simple. Everyday food rather than special occassion food, but eating this stuff every day would be the most extravagant luxury.

            Then came an enormous frying pan filled with frittata (omelet with potatoes, green peppers, and a touch of parmigianno). We ate while dunking fresh italian bread in non-fancy (but aromatic) olive oil, punctuating the flavor with little chunks from a plateful of extra cheese, everyone busily--and unself-consciously--seeking the perfect balance of frittata, cheese, and bread. The egg was soft but not runny, the potatoes smooth (teeth glided through) yet maintaining their spudly integrity.

            Then to finish (or so I'd thought), we had a pastry just like a giant rugela; doughy spirals around cinnamon and nuts (with a touch of cranberry--a new touch for Mrs. Signorini, who's always trying something new). I'd tasted a previous version, and had sent word via Tony that she might try adding cream cheese to the dough. But, misunderstanding, she'd merely added chunks of the stuff into the filling. I tried to explain what I'd meant, and she nodded indulgently while Tony threw up his hands in indignation ("That's exactly what I told her!"). Mrs. Signorini is as unlikely to bake Jewish-style rugelach as she is to play quarterback for the Jets; it's simply not in her nature. She IS Italy.

            The real treat came later. She ran to the store for some provisions, and announced she'd be making Frittelli de San Giuseppe, a Tuscan specialty usually served only on the feast of St. Joseph.

            VERY interesting dish: you simmer rice (CAROLINA rice) in milk with a little sugar, and mix flour and orange zest into a bowl of eggs (attaining a paste neither stiff nor watery). The rule of thumb seems to be one or two orange's zest per egg. All are combined (more flour added to adjust thickness...again, that middle point is sought), and tablespoons are deep fried in corn oil. They cook almost instantly, and are unbelievably delicious both brown/crunchy and yellow/mushy). Amazing dish (we ate them with some strong wine made by Tony's father), and a rare pleasure since she only makes the things once or twice a year. The trick seems to be to go lightly on the orange and the sugar. Balance. Simple.

      2. I have a hard time understanding your point of view on this dish....I would have gone for either asparagus or broccolini, and I'm totally confused by the ginger and sherry vinegar. When I read your post, the first thing that came to mind was "salt"--was there enough in the right places at the right time. If the meat was already cooked, I would have added that closer to the end. And for chicken stock, well.....I would have used homemade. Sorry. And yes, I think garlic could have made a big difference in the dish...and not sure where the smoked paprika came in. I think the dish needs more focus.

        1. Generally, flat is actually "no salt" or lack of complimentary seasoning.

          I see onion, carrots, pepper, paprika, jalapeno, ginger, store-bought stock, and vinegar. My mouth can make no sense of these ingredients together. And then you added unseasoned chicken, asparagus and broccolini. And then it was all thrown with some pasta. As they say in cooking reviews, there is no focus.

          With these ingredients, I would cut the meat and season with a salt/paprika/black pepper blend, letting it rest on some paper towels until ready to cook. Prepare the onions, asparagus and broccolini. Heat a pan, add the olive oil. When warm, dry the chicken completely and add to the pan, carefully browning each piece. Remove from the pan. If needed, add a tiny bit more oil and add the onions with some salt [perhaps some red pepper flakes] cooking until they are just about to start brown. If you want to add garlic, now is the time. After 30 seconds, add some white wine and reduce. Meanwhile, add the pasta to well salted walter. Add some chicken stock to the onion mixture with the broccolini, reduce by 1/3 and add the chicken back to the pan. When the pasta is two minutes from done, throw the asparagus into the water to blanch. Drain the pasta and asparagus and add to the chicken mixture. Stir. Turn off the heat and add some parmesan cheese if using.

          1. Yikes! You're supposed to be making pasta not soup!

            A couple of thoughts (personal viewpoints of course).

            You're not using nearly enough oil. Use 2-3 tablespoons, some will stay in the pan, some on the plate.

            Onions should not be sauteed overly soft, but only softened and rest of cooking would soften them up.

            Give the vegetables a good sizzle in the oil before adding any liquid.

            The onion and vegetables (and garlic if you add) should flavor the oil, then the oil flavors the sauce.

            As GH1618 points out, make sure you're using enough salt. Taste the pasta water, should have a slightly salty flavor.

            Too many ingredients.

            If you added stock to the pan you didn't need to also add pasta water and probably should have drained most of pasta water. Add pasta water when the sauce is not too liquidy.