June 30, 2006

On Earth As It Is At Dinner But Not South of Hadrian's Wall

by faisal

or: why the best restaurants in London are all ethnic food.

You've been learning to actually cook food, with recipes that don't start with "remove foil wrapper from cup". Phrases like "gently braise" suddenly and inexplicably combine with a shocking lack of calls to Domino's Pizza. Yet half your cooking seems to come out like some demented cardboard pudding. I'm here today to explain the problem. The problem is the British empire.

230 years ago this Tuesday the founding fathers set out to "assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them."

They fought for their own government.

They fought for the rights enshrined in the Magna Carta.

They fought for remotely phonetic spelling.

And despite this we are stuck today with cooking practice descended from a barbaric Victorian era practice of cooking all your food for four weeks. And then an extra two just in case one of your dinner guests forgot his or her dentures.

This has to stop.

So here we present some baby steps: pasta and spinach.


Pasta these days seems to always come with a note as to how long the pasta takes to cook. The time often doesn't correspond to how long the pasta actually takes to cook, so it's important to recognize and adjust for a key fact about the people who write these notes:

They are lying to you.

They are lying to you because they know every stove is different. They are lying to you because they know that "medium-high heat" means different things depending on what pot you're using. They are lying to you because they have no idea how long you let the pasta sit in your cupboard before cooking it. Most of all, they are lying to you because they're sadistic maniacs: the psychic screams of overcooked pasta feed not your palatte, but instead their dark desires for gustatory stupidity.

So, you ask, "when do I stop cooking the pasta?"

To paraphrase Paul Sedaris, I'm guessing you stop when it's finished.

For those of you who aren't Italian even in spirit, I will translate: The pasta is done 45 seconds before you think it is finished.

There is only one way to do this: about 3 minutes after you put the pasta in the water (2 if it's fresh) get a spoon and try a piece every 30-60 seconds. When it's still slightly uncooked you probably have 30 seconds or so left. Practice this and you'll get the hang off it.


Spinach, the food of Popeye, has been the victim of more indignities at our hands than your average American Idol contestant. Coming to American homes full of goodness, spinach is promptly turned into a disgusting mush devoid of flavor, nutritional value, flavor, mouth feel, flavor, and also flavor.

The good news is: spinach is easy.

  1. Cut the stems off the spinach.
  2. Bring a potfull of water to a roiling boil.
  3. Throw the spinach in.
  4. Recite the Lord's Prayer (the half-Kaddish, Fatiha, two Hail Marys or three recitations of the 1st ammendment will also serve).
  5. Take the spinach out, drain and serve it.

Some people have pointed out that this is a fairly short time. They're right. If you have time to do something else you have time to bludgeon the spinach to the point that it can't even be identified via dental records because you'll be sucking it through a straw.

If you're wondering why these two examples matter, consider the case of ramen cups. They can afford the saturation bombing recipe ("remove cover of cup. pour boiling water into cup. let sit for 4 minutes. enjoy. do not complain about the use of 'enjoy' as an intransitive verb.") because they start with no flavor to eliminate. Apply this to real food and you'll have spent 20 times more to end up with no flavor. You might as well boil cardboard: at least that has some fiber.


Posted by faisal at June 30, 2006 06:36 PM | Bookmark This

Boiling spinach in any context but ramen noodles is a crime against humanity.

Here is what you do

1. Stem the spinach if you want

2. Heat up a pan or wok.

3. Olive oil.

4. Toss the spinach in. Not so much as to fill up the pan.

5. Stir.

6. Salt.

7. Stir more until the leaves just start to collapse. About 30 seconds.

8. Remove.

If the leaves collapse all the way and start to spit out water, you've gone too long.

Posted by psu at June 30, 2006 07:37 PM

The other reason to take the pasta out early is that it will absorb some of the sauce, whereas if you overcook the sauce will just slide off the pasta. That's an issue entirely apart from the pasta being too mushy and soft.

Also, don't use too much sauce.

Posted by peterb at June 30, 2006 07:40 PM

Heh, stir frying spinach is an affront to the Universe.

The appropriate way to prepare spinach is:

1. Rinse the spinach
2. Stem the spinach if you want
3. Tear into halves or thirds
4. Add boiled eggs, croutons, flavorful cheese, and possibly some crumbled bacon
5. Dress with something like parmesan peppercorn or ceasar, but only a small amount.

Posted by sandro Fouche at June 30, 2006 09:21 PM

If God meant us to eat raw vegetables, he would not have given us fire and the Wok.

Posted by psu at June 30, 2006 10:37 PM

And just as a warning, squeezing a can of spinach in the hopes that the top will pop off and the spinach will fly up into the air and you can catch it all in your mouth doesn't actually work in real life. It just winds up in some combination of a hurt hand and a huge mess.

Posted by Adam Rixey at July 1, 2006 09:50 AM

psu, you forgot to add butter and nutmeg to your spinach!

Posted by Julie at July 1, 2006 05:57 PM

http://www.bionaturae.com/pasta.html makes a good pasta that's available in the US. Noticeably better than other dry pasta.

Posted by CRM at July 2, 2006 10:44 PM

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