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 jalapeño.
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.
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.
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.
re: babette feasts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"where am I going wrong, generally?"--I try to cook my aromatics/seasonings in the oil first, as I believe this helps the flavors (of spices, etc.) bloom and also permeate the dish. For instance, I would not have grated the ginger in partway through, but at the beginning with the oil and onions.
Also, while ginger, paprika, pepper and jalepeno may sing a lovely song, it does not seem to sing to me in Italian.
I find TJs broth bland--so that could definitely be affecting the depth of flavor . Take that with a grain of (carefully portioned) salt --I cook most dishes like yours with a head of garlic. And the accompanying side of veg, too.
It's hard to say without seeing the exact proportions you use, but...
It looks like you're not letting any flavors stand out in front.
In terms of 'zing,' adding some fresh herb right before serving can help. Making sure you balance out the salt, sugar, and acid is important too, though I assume you know that. But mainly, don't throw the whole fridge into the pot. Instead let a well chosen ingredient or two really stand out flavor-wise in the sauce, and pare down your other ingredients to those which actually support that vibrant, upfront flavor.
You seem to be thinking in terms of 'what else can I add to make this better?' when actually you might be better off asking the opposite question.
I agree with some of the responses that some of these ingredients seem to clash. Nevertheless, I often find the absence of soul in Mediterranean cooking is from holding back on the fresh herbs. You have none here. Even a generous dose of Italian parsley would brighten things up.
a couple of things that i thought of...
-like the above poster, i find TJ's broth to be like water.
-also as another poster suggested, i think if you refined focus it might help.
-personally, i know you used sherry vinegar (not sure how much), but i feel like it needs acid to make it pop. (possibly a pinch of sugar to balance it, but would have to taste for that.)
-also, did you use any herbs?
-though not my personal preference, i'm thinking bell peppers could have helped to give a more robust flavor. and some white pepper.
-and YES. garlic. roasted in this case :)
Using salt in the pasta water goes without saying. It will make a *huge* difference.
I don't know offhand of any Italian dish that uses ginger, fresh or otherwise.
Nor smoked paprika, either… (I would think that would give the dish a "hot-dog" sort of flavor).
The chicken broth I don't think helped your conception of the dish; no doubt it diluted the flavors (perhaps in this case a good thing).
Most Italian dishes focus on one ingredient to stand out, and there are virtually no pasta-meat combos unless the meat is used sparingly in a soup or sauce (spaghetti and meatballs is foreign to them) .
An Italian-style dinner I would have made with (basically) your same ingredients would go like this:
1.) Broil the chicken thighs in the oven very simply. You could use some lemon slices on top; you could de-bone them, pound them out and and broil with a slice of prosciutto (or plain boiled/Danish ham) and a slice of cheese (fontina or similar) on top; you could mince some garlic, put it in a small bowl with a bit of olive oil, salt, and a decent amount of cayenne pepper, using a small spoon to stick that mixture between the skin and the meat of the thighs for a sort of 'fra diavolo' effect. You could use an herb/butter mix under the skin, also (don't forget some salt)—stick with mediterranean herbs: parsley, thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage (no smoked paprika or ginger).
*One* of the above suggestions, mind you… not *all* of them!
If you had chicken breasts instead of thighs, they might lend themselves to a very quick frypan marsala. Salt, pepper, and flour the meat; shake off excess flour; fry quickly in a couple tablespoons butter, add 1/4 cup or so marsala at the very end (whoosh!) and let it reduce to a sauce with the flour/butter in the pan—takes not even a minute.] I say breasts because the breasts can be easily sliced parallel to your cutting board into two or even three thin slices which can be quickly cooked as above. *Or* with butter and sage, *or* with lemon juice and capers, etc. With some ham/cheese/sage it can become a chicken version of the classic veal saltimbocca.
2.) For the pasta course: with a broccoli/asparagus combo I would have opted for garlic, but with only onion I would have cooked the onion down to a decent extent (almost caramelized, definitely browned). In the meantime, I would have par-boiled the vegetables al dente (you can do this in the pasta water). Once they are drained or fished out of the pasta water, chop the veg into a bite size that complements the pasta *or* into a small rough chop, depending. With a cauliflower or broccoli a lumpy quasi-paste can work well, too: chop to the texture of the topping of a dessert 'crumble'.
Saute' the veggies along with the condensed onions for a minute or two to amalgamate the flavors. Make sure to use enough oil, salt and pepper, here; also I might have added some red pepper flakes with the oil in the frypan at the outset, esp. with broccoli.
This would be good with a medium-sized pasta like penne or farfalle, rigatoni, or even a long pasta like spaghetti, fettuccini in a pinch. Lasagnette would be nice but those are not so common. I would not choose "smallish" pasta (ditaloni/ini, orzo and the like) as those are for soups. The shapes do really make a difference in your mouth, tiny pastas tending to be rather insipid.
Drain the pasta a minute or two before the time on the package, and saute' in the pan over high/medium-high heat along with your veggies for its remaining cooking time. This will allow the pasta to absorb the flavors in the pan and come out less watery-tasting.
Since the sauce has an onion base, some parmesan cheese will go great with it; if you used garlic (in which case you don't want to have browned it, but want to add the other veggies when it is barely 'blonde') then instead I would not use cheese. The rules of thumb I have found here, from north to south: garlic+oil+red pepper vs. butter+cheese+black pepper. It doesn't pay to mix up these 'foodways' unless you really have a specific result in mind. Usually garlic and onions are not mixed, either, even in tomato sauces. This is my experience, anyway.
If you must have some acidity with your chicken/asparagus/broccoli, I would go for lemon rather than vinegar. I don't see Italians using vinegar in cooking other than to garnish a salad or cold cooked vegetables.
Whether you eat the pasta before the meat course (as they do here) or whether you put them both on the same plate, I think this is a better and more authentic solution than trying to make one dish do too much. It really does not save anything in the way of time to prepare them separately, and that way each main ingredient gets to shine.
"There were a lot of things I could have added…" Alt!
Your main problem, instead, seems to have been adding too many things.
Get ahold of a good Italian cookbook, even from the library, and start cooking from it. The tastes, the ingredient combinations and the cooking techniques will become second nature. I recommend Marcella Hazan, of course (I cook for Italians here, and everything I have made from her book gets high marks for flavor and authenticity). Once you have Hazan under your belt you could move on to Molto Italiano by Batali. You'll see that even his recipes don't often have a lot of ingredients, and that cooking techniques fall into classes which will become part of your repetoire.
P.S. There's a fantastic recipe for an asparagus soup in "Verdura" by Viana LaPlace: a *lot* of flavor with only 3 ingredients: arborio rice, asparagus, cheese (plus SALT and black pepper, parsley to garnish if you like). Italian cooking is generally very simple at heart.
jim, i mean this to be constructive, and i'm puzzled that it is you asking about your dish. so, please don't take the straight-forward comments here as condescending or patronizing, because they are not intended to be so.
if you didn't need to reduce salt, my first response on reading your post was "SALT!"
but, since you are restricted, then…..
in general, you must salt the pasta water, but other flavors can diminish the need for salt in the sauce. these flavors can be salt-free herb blends and also acids, like red wine vinegar or lime (or the acid that's appropriate for the cuisine).
in general, browning your aromatics will add depth. do slow browning more than you think you should -- but not burning (esp. garlic).
in particular re your query, i agree with the "focus" comments.
and add fresh italian parsley at the very end. fresh herbs always help almost any dish.
No offense taken! As is always the case in online group discussion, not everything said applies.
1. I'm certainly quite aware my spicing was a. unusual, and b. not Italian. I'm often whimsical in my cooking, and generally have more hits than misses, even with jarring-sounding combos (e.g. Spinach Banana Rice Omelet Scramble
[note: the moderators have asked me not to link to the recipe on my blog, so here is the full text, awkward though that is in this context, and as extraneous as the particulars are to this thread, and in spite of the lack of modern formatting tools in the site's software to make this less cumbersome....which I'll work around by inviting you to scroll to the multiple asterisks if you're uninterested in this material (which I really wasn't interested in discussing in detail, it was really just an aside, and it would digress this thread to do so) and prefer to jump to the continuation of this posting]:
Spinach Banana Rice Omelet Scramble
You have leftover white rice in the fridge (from yesterday's BRAT diet), but since you're getting over a stomach virus, you don't want to eat anything too controversial, so fried rice is out. You want protein, but it's breakfast. So how about...a Spinach Banana Rice Omelet Scramble?
Wilt a handful of baby spinach in a medium-hot nonstick skillet. Set aside. Layer thin slices of banana on the skillet, cook until the undersides are dark brown. Reduce heat a bit, pour three well-scrambled eggs (or four egg whites) over bananas, let sit 30 seconds. Add a half cup of rice, drizzle very lightly and unevenly with soy sauce (or, better, Filipino calamansi soy sauce, which has a citrusy edge from the calamansi), gently scramble with spatula, reduce heat to low and let sit, covered, or a minute or two. Finish with a generous drizzling of good quality extra virgin olive oil.
Look, I completely understand how randomly juvenile and ditzy this seems. It's one of my dopier kitchen moves. But, really, it worked. And, for easing one's way back to "real food" after a stomach bug, it worked great. It reminded me a little of the sweet plantain omelettes at the wonderful La Carreta chain of Cuban luncheonettes in Miami (there's one right in the airport).
The soy flavor catches onto the dark caramelization of the bananas. The clumps in the leftover rice seem pleasantly breakfasty/curdy/starchy (I wouldn't want this dish for lunch or dinner). The spinach and egg are omelette-ish, and the olive oil binds them all, and surprisingly doesn't conflict with the soy. Between the soy sauce and the banana, blandness was banished, and between the rice and the egg, stomach-settling ease was guaranteed.
I swear, it hung together. Some onion might have made a nice addition, but if you're going to sautee chopped onion, then you might as well fry the banana, and then you'd have a whole other dish...
My spice tangents work in lots of dishes, including rice dishes. But pasta alone is always flat-tasting......by which lots of posters think I meant "not-Italian tasting". In which case, they've correctly identified the culprit. But I'm not trying to make it Italian-tasting. If I were, I certainly know better than to use those spices!
2. I'm not restricted in salt, blood pressure's ok, but it makes me retain lots of water, so I've been experimenting over past few years with finding ways to reduce it when eating at home (can't help it when out, of course). I'm finding if I work hard, I can compensate for lack of salt (one trick: creative spicing!). More often than not, my low-salt rice dishes work out very well. I'm a stubborn cuss, and will keep trying to succeed in pasta without a lot of salt. But I'll take the prevalent advice and at least salt up the pasta water more (I did add some, as I said).
3. Yes to browning. But I noted that in my own original posting.
4. tons of butter, tons of oil....not my style of cooking. I eat unhealthily enough when I go out. When home, that's my time to give my body healthy food. And my challenge is to find ways to make it delicious nonetheless. In practically every other sort of cooking, I've reached that point. But my damned pasta is flat.
So: I'll brown more, pull back on the broth, and salt the pasta water more. And per Paul Trapani (thanks for the great post, Paul), I won't soften the onions and I'm persuaded by his wise note that the ingredients flavor the oil and the oil flavors the sauce. That's a key, I think. Now let me see how little oil (thus prepared) I can get away with and still have it taste good. I may experiment with infused oils, since unheated olive oil is healthy, even in quantity.
So it sounds like you have some idea of what the problems could be.
I'd have to ask if this is a new brand of pasta (or new to you - a brand you don't typically use)?
I find that not all brands taste the same and occasionally I will be traveling and will have to buy a brand that I am not used to using. On occasion those dishes have seemed "flat" to me, so I've added more salt that I would at home. I've attributed those instance to the pasta brand itself.
I had a follow-up conversation with Paul Trapani (who contributed to this thread, and who makes really delicious pasta). I pointed out that my soba efforts turn out great, as do my preparations with exotic rices. And I understood his comment about using generous amounts of oil and infusing as much flavor into the oil as possible, then using it as the basis for the sauce. The problem is that I don't like to use so much oil, and that's not how I make the soba and rice dishes.
His reply was interesting. He said "Look, pasta is bland. It's flour. It is almost flavorless. If you don't pump it full of oil and flavor, the result's just got to be boring".
I made a comparison to tofu, which he (surprisingly for a Sicilian) agreed with.
I think I get it now. You can't get cute or subtle with pasta. I've been painting with my soba and rice dishes, but it takes simple bold broad strokes to bring plain old flour to life. No waltzing around. Plenty of oil, plenty of salt.
I eat out a lot. So when I'm home, I try to eat 100% healthily. So while I'm not averse to using good quantities of unheated extra virgin olive oil, I don't do that sort of copious oily sauté. But I thought of a compromise. Since the trick is to get flavor into the oil, and get the flavored oil onto the pasta, I'm going to experiment with infused oil, unheated, drizzled on top of pasta, along with healthy toppings. Let's see what I can come up with....
I agree with an earlier response-- FIRST BROWN THE MEAT-- this goes for just about any dish- a braise- a saute with a pan reduction... Then brown/sweat the veggies and pick up the fond- the brown specs in the pan, using wine, lemon, tomato, or whatever acid liquid you are using... After that- add yor stock or additional liquid, and REDUCE- then season with salt and any herbs you would like. After that- your down to FINISHING- in the pan, such as with a marsala in a suateed reduction, or in the oven, in a braise (shortribs, pot roast)... The bottom line is that you probably had good ingredients- but after sauteeing the veggies, you then POACHED everything else and ended up with a bunch of poached chicken in a large amount of liquid... I would call it a soup, except that I would give the same intial browning of meat and browning of veggies the SAME treatment as described above. So, if you ended up with a soup- it was also "missing" opportunities to add flavor. good luck!
Aside from the salt issue, where you are going "wrong generally" is that you are using far too many ingredients. I might also add that this list of ingredients bears absolutely no resemblance to those in any Italian pasta dish that I have ever eaten, made, or encountered elsewhere. That's fine, but IMO you will not get "Italian soul" in a dish that combines chicken, chicken broth, jalapeño flakes, and "a good amount of fresh ginger."