Sunday, September 5, 2010

My pasta plan

I wrote in my fiber art blog about teaching traditional quilters how to design their own pieces rather than use commercial patterns. When I teach workshops on this subject, I make an analogy between quilts and cooking.

If one day you decide to learn to cook, you often make a recipe exactly as the book says. After a while you gain confidence and realize that you can make substitutions. The recipe called for rotini with broccoli, and you don’t have any rotini, so you make penne. Or even more daring, you make penne with cauliflower!

After you get more confident with one-for-one substitutions, you realize one day that you don’t even need the original recipe because you’ve learned the general plan for making pasta. You need four things: some pasta, some liquid, some solids, and some flavor. As long as you have all four represented, you can do pretty much anything you want. If you wanted to, you could serve pasta every night and never repeat yourself exactly.

The same can be true for quilting. My favorite general plan for functional quilts is log cabin, just as my favorite general plan for food is pasta. And just as I could happily serve a different meal for many nights in a row from my general pasta plan, I could make a lifetime’s worth of quilts from my general log cabin plan.

So here's the pasta plan.

You need four things: a sauce that (1) is strongly flavored, (2) has enough solids to be filling, and (3) is liquid enough to coat your pasta, not just sit there on top. And of course, (4) some pasta.

To achieve (1) you will use ingredients such as:
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced, raw or cooked a little bit
  • sun-dried tomato paste or tapenade
  • anchovies or anchovy paste
  • onion, chopped, cooked in a little oil over medium heat till it starts to caramelize
  • lots of oregano, rubbed between your hands as you put it into the pot
  • basil or pesto
  • chopped green or black olives (cut out the pits, please)
  • ham, pepperoni or salami, sliced into small shreds

To achieve (2) you will use any ingredients that are handy, such as:
  • canned or fresh tomatoes
  • canned kidney beans or white canellini beans
  • canned artichoke hearts -- nicest if sauteed in olive oil till golden brown
  • sauteed green or red peppers
  • leftover chicken or other meat
  • celery or carrots, chopped or diced, raw or sauteed
  • leftover cooked vegetables (add at the last minute so they don't get overcooked and soggy)
  • fresh vegetables such as succhini, beans, broccoli, cauliflower -- raw or cooked in the sauce or with the pasta
  • 3 cups leftover lobster
  • cooked ground beef or Italian sausage
  • canned tuna or clams
To achieve (3) each person must have at least 1/2 cup of liquid (not counting the solids).  The sauce can be almost clear or very opaque -- it doesn't really matter.  Use liquids such as:
  • cooking water from the pasta, at the end after it's gotten starchy and whitish
  • wine
  • beef or chicken broth
  • juice from a can of beans, clams or anything else you use in (2)
  • tomato juice or V-8
  • canned tomatoes plus their juice

In general, start by sauteing ingredients such as onion, peppers or celery with olive oil.  Just before you start to add liquids, push the solids to the side of the pan, turn down the heat, add the garlic and cover it with a little olive oil.  Let it saute only about 20 seconds.  The instant you see it starting to get brown, dump in a liquid so the garlic doesn't burn.

Add whatever needs to be cooked longest, then add the other ingredients in stages.  Ideally you will cook everything for at least 10 minutes so flavors meld.  For ingredients that need only minimal cooking, such as zucchini, add at the last minute.  Just before you serve, check liquid content; if it seems dry add more broth or pasta water.  As insurance, always reserve a cup of pasta water before you drain the pasta, in case you need extra liquid.  Serve with Parmesan cheese, unless you have seafood ingredients, in which case cheese is optional.


  1. Sounds yummy. I'm avoiding pasta but heck, you've got so much other really good stuff in the soup, I'd have to have it!

  2. So use a very little pasta and a whole lot of vegetables and liquid. Or substitute zucchini or spaghetti squash for the pasta.

  3. Fun blog! It's like being with you in the kitchen.