When the gas range landed, I knew that I wanted to cook. Correction, to cook. Before The Slump, dinner was a moment of inspiration, realized. It was a show of my affection for those with whom I shared meals, an opportunity to do more with my time than just acquire nutrition. But lately it hasn’t been like that – it’s been wishing that I wasn’t physiologically dependent on food because I couldn’t think of something than I really wanted to cook or ingest.
Meals became a chore – planning, shopping, cooking – in a tiring loop of obligation and frustration. I’ve been busy and have had other things on my plate – sometimes a girl just wants to get fed and move along. It felt a little like writer’s block, or how some people describe losing interest in physical affection. I was beginning to wonder if I was all right, if all of my essential parts were still intact and in order. I am and they are, of course, and I can write that not only because I have recently had a satisfying experience in the kitchen, but also because I know that one bad stretch in the kitchen does not an existential crisis make.
Our first dinner was soba noodles, shrimp and sautéed veggies. It was just plain good, and warm, and easy. Right away I reverted back to the practice of ducking down to look at the flame when adjusting the setting. The water for the noodles came to a boil faster. Shaking the sauté pan back and forth over the grate felt both sublime and comfortingly familiar.
On the afternoon of Day Two, at about the time I usually begin to think about eating, I was cranky. It was a general sort of dissatisfaction about the state of things, owing in part to this lingering winter-ish weather, the understocked nature of my pantry, and the list of phone calls I am putting off making on account of my not liking to make phone calls one itsy little bit. I walked into the kitchen to take stock. I was determined to cook something worth eating. That sort of a project would, at least, certainly keep me busy until it was too late to make the calls. And maybe it would feel good, too.
The pasta machine I recently inherited from a friend was sitting, unexplored, on the dining room table. I took it out of its box, surprised at its heft, pleased by its shine. Today, I decided, would be the day I’d make fresh pasta for the first time. I assembled the pasta machine, clamped it to my dining room table, and pulled Alice Waters from the bookshelf. In The Art of Simple Food, Alice concedes that the prospect of making fresh pasta can be intimidating, but, she writes, “I assure you, it is surprisingly easy.” Thankfully, I required no more encouragement than that.
Unlike other pasta recipes I’ve seen, Alice’s calls for only flour and eggs. No oil, no salt, no squid ink. It’s the simple food thing, and I love it. Having settled on the pasta, at once I saw my dinner plate: the pasta would have fresh basil in it, and atop the noodles would sit a piece of broiled salmon, snap peas, leeks, and red bell pepper. I’d squeeze lemon over the whole lot. This happens sometimes when I am fixing to cook: the plate comes into focus all at once and all I must do is execute the vision. Forgive me for using such overdone language to describe my inspiration, but when it hasn’t happened in so, so long, it’s really quite the thrill.
I flew the nest for the market – the good market, where the vegetables aren’t wilted and I trust the seafood – and returned within thirty minutes to our teeny tiny kitchen.
The pasta was easy – so much easier than I expected it would be. I read Alice’s recipe, I followed her directions, and everything came out great. If only all cookbooks were so successful. Fresh pasta goes like this (and you can download the recipe from the sidebar!): Blend up two egg yolks and two eggs, just beat them with a fork for a minute. I added about a quarter of a cup of minced fresh basil to the eggs. Next, measure two cups of unbleached all-purpose flour. The unbleached part is important to the final texture and flavor of the finished product. Alice says that bleached flour makes pasta gummier, and I believe her. Put the flour into large bowl. Make a mound, and then a depression (well) in the center. Pour the egg mixture into this well. To mix the dough, use your fingers or a fork, and then knead a few times on a lightly-floured surface to create a supple, well-incorporated dough. I added a few sprinkles of water, as my dough was rather crumbly. Alice said that might happen. Divide the dough in half, and form each half into a disc. Wrap both discs tightly in plastic and let rest, at room temperature, for at least one hour. This rest gives the gluten in the flour some time to relax – it will be much easier to stretch, roll, and cut in the machine after the siesta. Once the dough has rested, pass it through the pasta machine opened to its widest setting. Fold in thirds, and pass through again. Repeat twice, or until dough is shiny and smooth. Continue to pass dough through the machine, gradually decreasing the space between rollers until desired thinness is achieved. Cut to desired shape and length.
I hung the cut pasta on the backs of my dining room chairs while I prepared the rest of the dish. Everything else was as simple as can be – cooked to highlight the flavors of the remaining ingredients with minimal fuss. The salmon received sprinklings of sea salt and black pepper. I broiled the fish until it was cooked through and then squeezed a lemon over it. At the same time on the top of the stove, I cooked the noodles (they only took about five minutes) and sautéed julienne of leek, thinly sliced red bell pepper, and snow peas in olive oil and a little bit of butter until they were soft, but not overcooked. The whole lot was thrown onto plates, received another splash of lemon juice, and was delivered to the table. Had the smoke alarm not gone off twice, I dare say it would have been a transcendent culinary experience.
I think it would be unwise to make some booming announcement that The Slump has straightened out. There will be others, as I have so many more meals to cook in the next decades than I have made in the last ones – it is bound to get frustrating again. But on that first night, over soba noodles, The Squeeze and I decided that we will always have a gas stove. It isn’t, of course, that our new cooktop is wonderful enough to turn a disinterested person into an enthusiastic cook, though the difference, for those inclined to care about such things, is remarkable. It is one thing to know that gas cooking feels better, works better, and is more efficient. It is another to stand in front of a lit burner, worrying that you’ll catch your apron on fire, and watch the lit gas lick the bottom of the saucepan. The thrill is genuine, and so long as the excitement lasts, this cook is gonna ride it.
Tonight, I am going to invent some ravioli, also virgin territory. I have ideas for a spinach/onion/pinenut arrangement, and also a sweet potato-ginger filling. I worry that, like the cheese-less enchiladas of ’06, these will be “interesting” rather than “very tasty.” Still, I am excited to try, and happy that the prospect of cooking is no longer intimidating. I assure you, it is surprisingly easy.