Eating pappardelle one ribbon at a time
(Alternate title: “Heaven is ribbons and ribbons of pappardelle”)
You can tell I’m hungry. Like, really hungry. Perpetually hungry. I’m not doing anything wrong, mind you. Don’t go worrying about me.
It’s just that I’m still pantry-eating. And it’s funny — I said in my last essay that it’s fun, and it is, once you get going. But each night I have a moment of crisis where I’m like, “Fuck it, I’m going out.” Tonight, I even discovered one of my favorite pasta restaurants (Belotti) is open on Monday nights. Good God. I almost dashed for the car.
But, then, I thought, “I will spend $60 on a plate of pasta and a glass of wine and leave feeling like shit. Too full, and upset about denting my bank account like that, unnecessarily.”
I managed to stay the reflex to flee the house.
Instead, I asked myself, “What would I love to order at Belotti, if I was going there tonight? Then, I asked, can I make something close to that myself?”
The answer was, “Pappardelle.”
The second answer was… I doubt it.
My pantry stores are down. I opened the cupboard and saw cans of garbanzo beans and tomatoes on the top shelf, but I knew I could do nothing with them. I gave my can opener to one of my kids months ago when I outfitted kitchens for both of them, and I haven’t bought myself a new one yet.
I began to look around. I just “knew” I had nothing to work with. I thought my back was really against the wall this time.
I decided I wanted a glass of wine while I began this ordeal and quickly discovered I was out of wine too. Or, normal, daily drinking wine, anyway. I decided to make myself a cocktail, but remembered (after a more-than-cursory search) that I was out of bourbon and gin. Then, I dug a bottle of 1998 Merlot I inherited from my dear friend U. who died a couple of years ago from the back of the wine cupboard. I didn’t have high hopes for it. The other bottles of wine I’d inherited from U. were too old and stored poorly. They tasted like port, or cough syrup.
But, this Merlot, this 1998 Pietra Santa from Cienega Valley east of Monterey Bay, is… rather good.
I resumed my hunt. What did I have to work with? I DID have the requisite pappardelle noodles, which were the most important thing, of course. If I had nothing else, I’d have pappardelle with butter (which I have) and parmesan (which I have) with a smattering of fresh, coarse-ground black pepper (and that, my friend, is also a superb dinner, though light on nutrients, perhaps).
I set a cast iron skillet on a low flame. I sliced four small garlic cloves and threw them in with about four glugs of olive oil. I opened my vegetable keeper and removed a head of fennel, half a Persian cucumber, a single scallion, two ribs of celery, and a slightly withered, small head of radicchio. I had four small tomatoes from my tomato plant in the driveway. I pulled out the tin of anchovy fillets from the back of the fridge.
I wasn’t sure if I’d use the radicchio for the salad or the pasta sauce.
I did a quick search on New York Times Cooking and found a pasta sauce with radicchio. Their version had toasted nuts. Mine would have anchovy.
I thin-sliced the celery and threw that in with the softly simmering garlic. I then sliced the radicchio thinly, cut side down on the board, and tossed that in. With a fork, I pulled five or so fat anchovy fillets (most aren’t fat, but these were) from the large tin I got at a specialty food store ages ago. I placed those on the cutting board, chopped them roughly, and tossed them in. And the four or so small-ish tomatoes — I tossed those in, quartered. I turned up the heat a little, to medium-low, maybe, and turned to the salad.
(In the meantime, I’d at some point put a large pot of water on the stove with a good handful of kosher salt tossed in. Your pasta water should be “as salty as the sea,” as one brilliant cookbook taught me ages ago.)
Shoot, I hope I can remember my salad. I gobbled it all up and can’t look at it to reference anything. Let’s think.
I thin-sliced the Persian cucumber and tossed that in. Ah, the fennel. Fennel, my friends, is one of your best buddies when it comes to cooking. It’s delicious roasted or sliced thin in salads — I don’t think you can ever go wrong with fennel. This particular bulb was a little tired, but I simply shaved off the brown parts and blemishes. (You don’t have to remove the whole thick stalk from the bulb.)
Yes, the salad was half a Persian cucumber, sliced thin, half a small fennel bulb, sliced thin, a scallion, sliced thin. If I hadn’t been lazy, I would have gone outside for some oregano, marjoram, or tarragon, but I didn’t bother tonight. I cut a bit off the perpetual lemon that lives in my fridge and gave a good squeeze into the salad. Then, I minced a small garlic clove and added that to the little pool of lemon juice in the bowl, beneath the spry greens. I crumbled some Maldon salt into the bowl and then a few grindings of black pepper. Then, I left them alone for a while, so the garlic could macerate in the citrus (which mellows it).
I tossed the pappardelle into the salted water which was now at roiling boil and stirred it around a bit. I made a mental note to set my timer for six minutes but forgot to, which meant I had to check in with the noodles a couple of times, but since perfect papardelle is next to God for me, I was pretty attentive.
I added the olive oil — a tablespoon or two — to the salad and folded it a few times with a slotted spoon.
I removed the pappardelle from the flame. My pasta pot has a kind of colander that embeds within it, so when I take the inner colander-pot out, the pasta water streams out liberally. However, I knew I wanted some of this valuable pasta water for my sauce so I poured the pasta into the skillet with my sauce before it had all drained out. (If you try this, and feel you’ve added too much water and your pasta now looks like soup, don’t worry, it will dissipate rapidly. The pasta will absorb it. And if it doesn’t, turn the heat to simmer to evaporate it, but not too long — don’t overcook your pasta. That’s sacrilege.)
I retrieved my hunk of parmesan (Regianno only, if you can manage it) and grated a bunch on top. Then, I served myself oodles of noodles — perfect, long, luscious, silky papardelle noodles, with a few tong-fuls of radicchio-anchovy-tomato-celery sauce.
I brought the plate to the table with reverence. I even waited a bit before my first bite even though my stomach was doing flips. I then picked up my fork, threaded a whopping-wide pappardelle noodle between two tines, and turned the fork, over and over, until my first perfect noodle was nestled into a neat little package to be delivered to my mouth.
Heaven. It’s Heaven, this. Perfect pappardelle.
And a perfect, crunchy salad after.
A perfectly perfect 1998 Merlot, produced the year my son was born.
A dinner date with me, listening to Nina Simone sing “I Loves You Porgy,” with Daisy at my feet and Pebbles, our 17-year-old tortoiseshell kitty dozing on the table behind my wine glass (I know, I know) — it’s a more-than-decent life.
And can be had by you, too.
And don’t forget — I thought I had nothing to eat.
It was one of the best dinners I’ve had in a long time. And guess what? Objectively speaking — seriously — it was far better than the papardelle I last had at Belotti, which was an uninspired chicken broth-mushroom concoction with little imagination or creativity.
Oh, and the best part? I still have two more delicious pappardelle meals to look forward to! Lunch tomorrow and dinner the next day, perhaps.
YOU CAN DO THIS TOO. And you must!