Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What is the Meaning of Al Dente?

There are only two answers to that question.  One is short; the other one endless. The short one is pretty straight forward, and is an explanation most of us have heard many times: you know pasta is cooked al dente when you bite into it and it's still firm. Pretty simple isn't it?  And yet something is missing. Where's all the emotion, hand gesticulation, anxiety? And that's when the endless answer to al dente comes in. Pasta cooked al dente means...well, how much time have you got?  Because when we're asking about al dente, the best way to answer is with another question, as in whose dente is it?  Mine? Yours? Zio Nicola's?  Ask 10 different people to cook a serving of pasta al dente and you'll most likely get 10 different results.

Last year, there were nine of us sitting at our table at my niece's wedding.  We had just finished eating the antipasto and the pasta arrived, piping hot topped with a beautiful tomato sauce. We passed the grated parmesan around the table and began eating without much dialogue. Everyone was hungry.  It was a typical wedding.  The cocktail hour had gone on longer than usual and we were eager to get to the eating part of the party. I took one bite of the penne lisce and thought to myself:  "Finally, pasta cotta al dente! I can't believe someone cooked it the way I like it.  Two to three minutes past the half-cooked mark. I want to find the chef and shake his hand!"  Thirty seconds later, I understood that not everyone was sharing in my joy. You could break the tension at the table with a veal-chop mallet. There were concerto-like cries.

"It's not cooked."  
"E cruda."
"I can't eat this."

I looked up.  Dare I jump into the combat zone with my idea of what perfect pasta tastes like? This was, after all, pasta al dente. Propio al dente, the way God had intended it to be. I looked at my table mates. Emotions were raw. In this corner, my 80-year-old-uncle with daggers in his eyes. I think he was offended. What am I saying?  He's Italian!  Of course, he was offended! Across from him, our two fine-dining chefs.  Yes, my brothers-in-law, both who cook pasta (among other things) for a living and people rave about their dishes and come back for more. And then my two cousins (who lived in Italy for at least a decade) and they weren't touching theirs either. Could I risk it? Would I jump in with: "But this is what past al dente means!" Why take a chance, I thought. Why start another family feud? Haven't all of us had a lifetime of drama already? Just stay calm and consult with Mr. BBQ.

I leaned over to my husband. Before I could open my mouth he whispered in my ear: "Do you want mine? It's not cooked."  I grinned. "Is the sky blue?" Looking at my other table mates, I marveled at this situation. Where were the happy faces? There was pasta in front of us! We should have been eating and joking and pouring the wine. How could this be? Weren't we all Italian? How are we supposed to explain what al dente means to other cultures when we can't even agree amongst ourselves

That's when I decided I would be crazy to add my opinion to this magnum opus. Sing high: "I love it!"  Sing low: "I hate it!" I can't do it, I thought to myself.  If I open up that Pandora's opera box of al dente definitions, I may get a noodle in the head.  It's just not worth it. I ate in silence, contributed nothing to the conversation, traded plates quietly with my husband (cringing as I did so in case anyone noticed and confronted me with: "What, are you crazy?") and ate all of his share, too.  That was one night I definitely broke the 1/2-cup-per-person-rule.  I could have starred as Woman Versus Food at my table that night-- I know an opportunity when I see one--  but honestly, I just can't eat that much.

You know that explanation: throw pasta at the wall and when it sticks, it's cooked?  Well for me it's more like: throw pasta at the wall and if it bounces back more than a little, it's cooked.  That's how it is to my dente anyway. Which explains why my mom has this crazy way of cooking pasta. She leans to the person closest to her when the pasta is past the half-way mark and takes a filo out of the pot. It goes like this:

Mom: "Che dici, e cotta?" 
Taste tester:  "Ummm...two more minutes."
This prompts the next tester in the kitchen:  "Let me check!" Another filo goes out. Taste tester Number Two:  "Ummm...Io dico five more minutes." Other fili get distributed and while everyone is talking and tasting, mom drains the pasta and nobody notices. No one ever complains and almost everyone has seconds. But if there's ever any whining about the pasta not being al dente, we never really know whose dente mom went with. 

 In fact, in our family the only thing we agree on when it comes to Al Dente is that it's the name of one of our favorite restaurants. I mean, why expend all your energy on pasta? That would leave us no room to argue about who makes the best cannoli.  I've heard it's Francesca's Italian Bakery in Scarborough but don't hold me to it as I haven't checked out this tip yet.  In case you get there before I do, please spread the word.  If they're as good as they say they are, we want to keep them in business for as long as possible. And check out Al Dente Restaurant, too.  Here's their web site Delicious food, really good prices, a great place for private parties. Definitely worth the trip to Markham.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Life is Like a Bowl of Pasta

Random thoughts from a pasta lover

Is life like a bowl of pasta?  While gazing at the mile-long display of dried pasta in the grocery store last week, this question came to me.  Pasta was on sale, three for $5.00; a mix and match type of deal.  Do I pick farfalle, spaghettini and bowties, or penne, spaghetti and bowties?  Or maybe just two spaghetti and one bowtie?  Spaghetti is loved by all in our house and bowties are just fun. 

I stood in the isle pondering my options and asked myself why I was taking so long.  I mean, why sweat the small stuff, as the book says.  (I read that book by the way-- a couple of times, maybe more-- but still agonize over three for $5.00 deals and other simple options.) And so, the question had to be answered.  Is life like a bowl of pasta?  I think it is.  I have an even 10 answers that tell me so. I went with 10 because 8 or 9 (or even 11) would be a little odd to me, someone who insists on sweating over the little things, even though she read the book a couple of times and maybe even more. If you have thoughts about how life is like a bowl of pasta, please share. Random thoughts are good as 3 for $5.00 deals. 

How life is like a bowl of pasta:

  1. Sometimes you feel like a wet noodle.
  2. Sometimes good luck drops into your life like grated parmesan on your plate.
  3. Variety makes the heart sing.
  4. Don't take more than your share.
  5. Be thankful for what's in front of you-- don't wish for something  nobody cooked!
  6. Fussing over the details makes all the difference. (If you disagree, ask yourself why you're still making tomato sauce from scratch when you can buy it at the store.)
  7. There are days when all you really want is pasta but all you have is tomatoes.
  8. Sometimes it seems everyone is getting a bigger portion than you...and times when your bowl is overflowing with the best ingredients life has to offer.
  9. It's best to work together to clean up our messes.
  10. Savor every bite-- it's over before you know it.
More about pasta next week. How can this basic dish start an argument in most families?  It can and it does.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Nectar of the Neighborhoods

Eight years ago, a friend of ours bought a wine-making business. We were happy to support him, though I was skeptical about making our own wine. Despite the wonderful smells that lingered for weeks in and around our neighborhood every Fall when I was growing up, I couldn't erase the thought of fresh grapes fermenting into a stiff and unsavory turpentine-like-beverage that never seemed to bother our fathers-- a joke that kept many of us laughing for at least a decade. Come to think of it, I remember a gathering with friends last year when we were still howling about that wine and how, out of desperation, one of us discovered it was perfect for clearing the bathroom-sink drain one day.

 The wine-making business has changed a great deal from those 
early-immigrant days. It's not as much fun as it used to be back when our dads rearranged our cement-block garages for at least a month every Fall...though there's no question today's end product tastes a lot better! Driving in and around Toronto, we'd see the signs Uva per Musto outside Darrigo's grocery store and that's when we knew the grapes had come to town. Our fathers lined up their wine-making equipment in the garage and hustled in the crates. We neighborhood kids would move from garage to garage (our makeshift outdoor living rooms) where activities were infinitely more entertaining than staring at the TV.  

We'd gather around the wine presses like they were Christmas trees and circle around the thundering damigiane.  Our dads would swap notes and press the grapes. We'd show our strength by adding some muscle. My dad would make red, our Friulano neighbors would make white and share their grappa-making secrets. We'd visit uncles in their cement-block garages and wood sheds and listen to more wine-making secrets.  It was a time of great excitement; one that lasted weeks from start to finish with us kids drinking a fresh and bubbly grape juice and our dads tasting, testing, waiting, and hoping for the best. Of course many times we got the worst but that only led to more adult conversations that lasted all winter long and a decisive determination to do better next Fall. 

Today, larger-than-life damigiane collect dust in city garages and we no longer see the luscious grapes that turn into musto.  Instead, we start with the musto and we're bottled and done in less than an hour. But before I get too nostalgic, did I mention that today's wine tastes a lot better?  Our wine-making memories will always be with us, and while we're reminiscing, it's nice to enjoy a glass that pleases the palette! Here's how we made it this year:

Inside a beautifully decorated store, we sanitize and prepare our bottles. We choose seals and discuss labels. The fermenting grape juice moves from the easy-to-manage jug into the bottles.  

It's corked and the loose seals placed on top. Extreme heat shrinks the seals into place and the bottles are set aside to be labeled.  

 It takes three seconds for the heat coil to shrink each seal.  End result?  The final product looks as good as any bottle at the LCBO.

Today's wine jugs are one-third the size of a classic damigiana.
A corking machine makes it easy.
We repeat the procedure. First white; then red. We load up the car, pay the bill and go for lunch where we discuss politics and globalization and the complex issues the world faces today. We stop to buy Halloween candy and a few chocolate-covered raisins to chew on for our trip home and I think about how our kids used to come with us when they were younger. How we'd stop by the lake to breathe in the view and look for interesting stones and driftwood before riding back home.  I think about the prosperity they've known in their young lives-- one we couldn't even dream about as early immigrant kids. I tell these stories with the hopes that one day, when they're enjoying a glass of fine wine, they'll tell their children about a generation of nonni who worked so hard to make a nectar that wouldn't taste like turpentine. And how, despite their disappointments in their efforts most years, they drank it with great pride and with the hopes that their children would have a better life one day. One better than anything they could ever dream of.