The noodles have to be dried before cooking. That means they have to be hung over horizontal rods or some substitute. My Nonna, like many home chefs, used the backs of her chairs. She would quickly fill the two kitchen chairs closest to her with several dozen strips laid evenly across the chair backs, so that there was not too much noodle weight on either side. Then she would start to hand the cut strips to my sister and I to drape over the backs of the chairs closest to us. These first chairs were where we learned how to judge the exact middle balance point, and not let the flour dusted noodles slide off and splat onto the kitchen floor in a little messy bird’s nest. Eventually, every chair in the kitchen was filled. The sight alone made you smile because it looked so unusual to have dinner draped where the diners would soon be sitting to enjoy it.
Given a fond memory like that, I am perfectly willing to admit I had very high hopes for my pasta entree choice. My wife and I had been looking forward to the reopening of this small suburban bistro, now under new management. Our dinners arrived, and before the plate hit the table I was absolutely sure these were not hand made pappardelle. Each noodle was identical to its mates; the same exact width, length, and thickness, perfection that is impossible to achieve with anything but a pasta machine. I ate a few bites and felt I needed to confirm my suspicions with our server. I asked, “The pasta is made here?” She said she would check with the kitchen.
While we waited, my wife sampled her entrée choice of seafood risotto. It was seasoned with saffron and roasted red peppers. Saffron is by far the most expensive spice in most kitchen racks, and is used very sparingly to add a slight yellow color and a hint of flavor. Unfortunately, any saffron flavor was buried under layers of smokiness, perhaps from peppers that were fire roasted and had not had their charred skins properly peeled away prior to being chopped and added to the risotto. But it tasted more like the acrid, pungent “liquid smoke” flavoring that comes in a bottle. And, to make matters worse, it simply wasn’t risotto. It was a bed of rice. The entree descriptions on the menu had lied to us twice in one night.
Risotto is a method of cooking short-grained rice like Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. You must constantly stir the rice, over medium heat, in a shallow pan as you add hot liquid one ladle at a time. The point is for the rice grains to have enough moisture to cook to tenderness, but also be dry enough that the individual grains rub against each other and release creamy rice starch into the broth. This binds the grains together slightly, and gives the dish its distinctive body and texture. Done properly it takes about 20-30 minutes to prepare.
Eventually, our bistro server returned from the kitchen and informed me that the pappardelle was supplied by a small pasta company in Atlanta. I suspect there is nothing hand made about them. Maybe the machine they were made with is hand cranked? They certainly tasted no better or worse than any other noodle I could buy at the supermarket. One of the things that sets fine food apart is not only does it have great taste, but it also has a pleasing and proper texture. The steak is tender and not tough. The lettuce is crisp, and not limp. A handmade pasta noodle that has indeed been rolled out and cut by hand has variable thickness and width that offers the diner a completely different mouth experience from the similarly shaped noodles turned out by a machine.
So often menus just flat out lie to patrons, mostly about the techniques used to prepare the food. I’ve had Beef Carpaccio arrive that was sliced, cooked tenderloin; grilled Reuben sandwiches that were served on toasted bread. The list goes on and on. I wish local restaurant owners would heed the advice of a famous radio host who is fond of reminding his listeners that, “Words mean things.” If you have had similar experiences with twisted menu descriptions and imposter entrees, or if you have any ideas for future food topics you would like discussed in this new column, please shoot us an email.
Dee Marcus writes food-centric commentary for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to email@example.com.