The first pasta toss

Aug. 27, 2013 @ 08:03 AM

Orecchiette is a small, round, cup-shaped pasta.  It means “little ears” in Italian.  I don’t see it.  I think it looks more like a stocking cap for Hipster Barbie.
I’ve been trying to figure out the exact moment when I got rid of the kits and boxes, and took control in my kitchen.  But I don’t think it happened like that.
It was an evolution, more of a cumulative thing.  Each true culinary experience added something.  Every viewing of a cooking show, and each food conversation with Chef Chrissie increased my knowledge and passion.
The kitchen became a laboratory.  Each meal an experiment.
Some were on the order of betamax, and new Coke.  Like the time I stuffed a turkey with canned potatoes (what was I thinking?).  Or the night my child and I decided to make cheese powder to sprinkle on popcorn.  We practically blew up the stove (I really did blow it up another time, but that’s a different story).
On the other hand, some attempts were winners.  I developed my pink sauce recipe very early on.  It’s rich but tasty.  It’s still one of The Kid’s favorite meals, and Petey and I also look forward to it, and have lengthy discussions about which starch it will be served on.  The Kid insists it would be yummy on a tennis shoe.
When The Kid was a toddler, and only interested in mac and cheese, and plain steamed broccoli, I came up with a pasta dish for myself, to eat on the evenings Petey was at work.  I could get all the components together, and when I was ready to eat (after I got The Kid down for the night) all I had to do was combine everything in a skillet.
This became the basis for every subsequent pasta toss.  Now, when I’m feeling in a noodle kind of mood, I survey my on-hand ingredients, and throw something together.  But this is where it all started.
Primordial Pasta Toss
½  box orecchiette pasta (usually between 12 & 16 ounces)
3-4 cloves garlic
1 head broccoli, cut into florets and very lightly steamed
1/3 cup sundried tomatoes (the ones in a bag, in the produce section)
2 tablespoons capers, drained
Juice of one lemon
1 bunch scallions
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (optional)
Salt and freshly cracked pepper

Prepare ingredients: With kitchen scissors, cut tomatoes into strips and place in bowl.  Cook pasta according to package directions in heavily salted water (if it will be some time before using, toss drained pasta with a touch of olive oil, to keep it from clumping).  Pour a cup of hot pasta water over tomatoes to rehydrate.  Let them soak 10-20 minutes.
Juice lemons, finely mince garlic, clean and thinly slice scallions on a bias, and set all aside.
Cooking: Heat oil in skillet on medium.  Toss in broccoli, capers, garlic and combine.  Add sundried tomatoes and a couple of tablespoons of the water.  Mix in pasta.  Stir in lemon juice.  When the juice has mostly sizzled away, add pine nuts if using, and take off heat.
Add scallions now (doing this off heat will keep their color), keeping back some to garnish. 
Serve hot or cold.  Feeds 2-3 as main, or 6 as a side. 
Since the very beginning, Alton Brown has been my most valuable tele-mentor.  He doesn’t only teach how, he teaches why. 
He has a term that perfectly describes a pasta toss — “refrigerator velcro.”  Bits and pieces of leftover or not quite so fresh foods.  A couple of remaining servings of corn?  Throw it in.  Not enough bacon for breakfast?  Stick it in there.  A few almost wonky mushrooms?  Knock yourself out!
Short of buying a new pair of shoes, nothing thrills me like putting together a meal from stuff that I already own.  Instead of trashing stuff, giving it a second life in a yummy dish gives me a huge charge.
     I just love telling Petey something like, “Dinner tonight cost a grand total of $2.83.”  It helps keep up the illusion that he married a ravishing genius (the ravishing part is way easier now that he wears glasses).
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is