My Private Chef All Mixed Up

Pasta recipes to lift the spirits and soothe the stormy soul

Miri Hanoch, Eyal Shani
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Miri Hanoch, Eyal Shani

his time we were sure that we'd beat the system and circumvented the traffic jams. We set out on the return trip to Tel Aviv in the early afternoon of the recent Shavuot holiday, on the presumption that the rest of the Jewish people would not forgo their last lovely hours at Lake Kinneret and wouldn't extinguish the fire as long as the coals were still burning. A truly clever plan - only we weren't the only ones who thought of it. The baby fell asleep at the start of the drive and it looked like three cherries had just lined up on the slot machine: She'd sleep and we'd pass the short trip gazing at the sea with quiet music playing. But as soon as we hit Jisr al-Zarqa we were already stuck in what one always hopes is just a little back-up due to a minor fender-bender; as it turned out, it was the tail end of a traffic jam that stretched all the way to Tel Aviv.

The big girls started arguing about which CD of the two that were in the car we should hear, and in the turmoil that ensued between The Police and Yes, the little one woke up after a deep sleep that had lasted a whole eight minutes. From that moment on, she cried, ate Bamba, threw whatever she could get her hands on, pulled out the upholstery and chewed on the straps of the bags that protruded from behind - until I could no longer remember the purpose of having children under 10, an age when you can at least tell them, with some hope of compliance, to just lean back and relax.

Somewhere around Caesarea the eldest announced that she was quite interested in getting out of the car. That we should just open the automatic lock and she would continue on foot since her teenage nerves couldn't take it anymore. The baby was throwing her head back in rhythmic motions of despair and the middle child covered her head with a white cloth to keep herself from screaming too loud.

The immediate result was that the chef pulled off the road in a most decisive fashion and informed us that we were stopping to calm down a little at the beach before continuing. Since the traffic was at a standstill, there was plenty of time to argue over whether we should head for Beit Yanai or Michmoret. What difference does it make? As long as there's a fresh subject to fight about. In situations like these, the chef tends to make unilateral decisions. He got off the highway and started driving in the opposite direction. "Where are you going?" I yelled after 10 minutes on this northerly heading. "Soon we'll be back in Haifa."

"To the sea," he succinctly replied.

"So why don't we take a back road to Tel Aviv?" the teenager asked, though the question really should have been posed to someone from the Infrastructure Ministry. In the end, we parked at a beach that was bedecked with signs saying, "To the bat-mitzvah of Sarit and Rinat," and decided that we were more Sarit's friends than Rinat's and that we'd just forgotten the gift at home. But as soon as we finally let everyone out of automotive prison, we discovered that there is something worse than standing on the road: standing at the entrance to the bat-mitzvah of Sarit and Rinat, which was about to be canceled on account of the gusty winds that were sending pitas and plates of hummus and even the beach chairs flying. The baby's hair was blowing wildly backward, as in a cartoon about a hurricane.

We all tramped through the sand, hardly able to see one another because of all the wind. "Let's go back to the car!" I shouted with all my might, and the older girls nodded in relief. "How can you say that?" the chef shouted in my direction. "Look how much the little one is enjoying it. This is the first time she's ever encountered such a wind," he insisted. But it was impossible to talk because the wind swallowed our words and closed our eyes. We fled back to the car and the baby erupted into hysterical crying when she saw her car seat again. We strapped everyone in against their will and returned to exactly the same spot in the traffic jam, only more aggravated and full of wet sand.

When we finally reached the city, it was evening already. No one cried or spoke because that's how it is - protracted despair tends to evolve into total silence. We went up to the apartment, after spending half an hour looking for parking, and in the stairwell, next to a burned-out light bulb, the chef announced, "I'll make us a spicy summer pasta." And since there's always pasta in the house, he pulled out two peppers, a tomato and olive oil, and while we were still moaning about the endless journey, 12 minutes later he filled our mouths with spicy hot pasta, which was followed by a sweet silence.

Olive oil, tomatoes and sailors

The eternal debate surrounding pasta's exact origins will never be completely resolved, even though many have given up and accepted that Marco Polo brought it to Italy from China. But no surrender ever comes about without a new argument that creates a new war with a new chance of winning: Pasta was being cooked in Italy for hundreds of years before Marco Polo's expedition to China. It's best to understand that if you've come up with something that you think is a new invention, if you're lucky, then someone else somewhere else is already thinking about it, too. If you're not so lucky, then lots of other people are already dreaming about it and some of them are already making it a reality.

There is no dispute about one historic fact: The Italians knew pasta in two primitive forms: pasta in olive oil and pasta "a la marinara," which literally means "the sailors' way." Their way was to take tomatoes on long voyages. Tomatoes don't spoil quickly; at most they dry out. Hence, pasta a la marinara is pasta in tomato sauce.

Most of the pasta dishes created since then are an evolution of the original two types of pasta, and their brief preparation time epitomizes the beauty of Italian cuisine: a minimum of ingredients that complement without overwhelming each other. In Italy, the time needed to prepare a wonderful meal is 45 minutes. The French will go into the kitchen, work for four hours and spend the whole next day washing dishes. Pasta that can't be made in a few minutes is pasta that has lost its way amid extra and unnecessary ingredients and instructions.

The following recipe will serve 4.

Ingredients:

500 gr. dry pasta (spaghetti or linguini; De Cecco brand is recommended)

4-5 liters water

1/2 cup salt

olive oil

Preparation:

1. Pour the water into a large pot and bring to a strong boil. Add the salt, empty the contents of the pasta package into the water, stir and maintain a strong boil, with the pot uncovered, for the amount of cooking time indicated on the package. Pasta that is supposed to eventually merge with a sauce other than olive oil should be cooked 1 minute less than the time listed on the package - except for pasta that will be joined by tomato sauce, which should be cooked exactly according to the time on the package. Tomatoes halt the process undergone by the food due to the heat during cooking.

2. Pasta should be united with its sauce for 2 or 3 minutes of cooking or stirring, while the sauce is absorbed. These 3 minutes have the equivalent softening effect of about 1 minute of cooking in boiling water.

3. A minute before the end of the cooking time, collect a cup of the boiling water and set aside. This water contains the exact proportion of pasta starches that we might need when extending the pasta's cooking time in the sauce. This happens when we've prepared a sauce whose thickness is just right and have then added the pasta. Adding the water at this point will restore the sauce's optimal thickness and give it a smooth texture, even better than its earlier version, and will wed the sauce to the pasta in a marvelous way.

4. The pasta's cooking time is over. The sink is empty except for a large colander sitting in it. Pour the cooking water together with the pasta into the colander. A bottle of olive oil is standing by. Pour some oil onto the pasta right away as it is still enveloped in steam, and mix. A few drops of the oil will slip through the holes of the strainer and a little golden puddle of olive oil will appear in the sink.

Spaghetti with olive oil, young garlic and shata pepper

This is the basic recipe for all pasta dishes based on olive oil. The hot pepper and oil seem to divest the pasta of the feeling that it is full of starches.

Ingredients:

4 tbsp. high-quality olive oil

3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced into thin rings

2 shata peppers, minced (cut with gloves on and then rinse the cutting board and knife well; otherwise, all the food you make for the next two days will be spicy)

1 sprig sage, leaves only (dry rock sage is best)

Parmesan cheese

Preparation:

1. Place all the ingredients in a large, heavy skillet, turn on the fire to medium-low and let the ingredients gently roast in the oil. If the garlic becomes burned, it's best to throw everything out and start again, since the taste of the burned garlic will dominate all the other flavors. After 2 minutes, the peppers will be a bright red, the sage leaves will be a silvery green and the garlic rings will be translucent. The olive oil should be hot, but not very hot. If it's too hot, the pasta will stick to the bottom of the skillet.

2. Add the pasta that's been waiting in the colander and mix energetically, with flat tongs if possible. At this point, the pasta will look a little oily. This is the trap that encourages us to add some of the cooking water that we saved. Don't fall for it. The cooking water is for other sauces. If we add it here, the olive oil will turn to an emulsion. Granted, we usually like emulsions, but in this case after adding the water, the crispy sage leaves will become bland little green dishrags, the shata pepper will have as much zing as paprika and the garlic's flavor will intensify.

3. A few more seconds and the olive oil will be absorbed by the pasta and then it will all be transferred to a serving dish. Grate some Parmesan on top and serve. When we finish eating, all that remains will be a little oil stain on the plate, tinged orange from the pepper.

Spaghetti with olive oil, sage and raw tomatoes

The only ingredient to add to the above recipe is one firm red tomato, peeled and cut into small cubes. About half a minute before the cooked pasta is added to the skillet, add the tomato cubes to the olive oil mixture. This does not turn the olive oil sauce into a tomato sauce. The tomatoes are slowly roasted in the oil and do not excrete juices, and the sage leaves maintain their crispness. The ascetic character of the sauce is maintained, too. When it's time to eat the pasta, the tomato cubes are like little red stars that add to the pleasure of the dish.

Pasta with olive oil, raw tomatoes and ricotta

The following recipe involves several steps and serves 4.

Tomato and hot pepper mixture:

Combine 2 firm red tomatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes, and 1 hot pepper finely diced, in a bowl, then add olive oil and sea salt so that they are covered but not drowning. The combination of raw tomatoes with hot green peppers and olive oil constitutes a most addictive combination. (Next time, try heaping a little bit of it on a steak. No one will ever come up with anything better to put on grilled meat.)

Tomato juice:

Lightly mix 1 grated, firm red tomato with 1 tbsp. olive oil and salt in a bowl.

Putting it together:

Prepare spaghetti/pasta with olive oil, sage and shata pepper (above). Pour 2 tbsp. of the tomato juice into each of four bowls. Place the steaming hot pasta on top. Sprinkle on 2 tbsp. of the tomato and hot pepper mixture, and place a slice of ricotta on top.

Pasta with sweet and hot peppers

Ingredients:

4 tbsp. olive oil

2 long, sweet red peppers, torn by hand into large pieces

1 small, thin-fleshed hot green pepper

Saute the peppers in olive oil over a medium flame. Turn the peppers over from time to time until they are a little seared and their color intensifies.

More ingredients:

1 stalk of sage, leaves only

1 shata pepper, diced small

Add the sage leaves and the diced pepper to the skillet and wait until the leaves become crispy and their color becomes bolder.

Another ingredient:

3 cloves fresh garlic, sliced into thin rings

Add the garlic to the skillet and stir, until the garlic becomes translucent.

The final ingredients:

500 gr. pasta that has just been cooked

Parmesan cheese

Add the pasta to the skillet and mix for about 3 minutes. Divide among four serving dishes, grate Parmesan on top and serve.

t the end of this long day, the chef fell asleep on the couch in the living room. After all the battles on the roads and whipping up some pasta in record time (with hot pepper, despite the protests), even his curls were tired and they rested next to him like old friends. Only the baby kept on blowing on the spicy pasta, not knowing that, unlike heat, spiciness does not fade with time.

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