|Brown Rice Ziti with Spicy Tomatoes and Basil|
In the process of trying new foods to use in the book, I discovered brown rice pasta, and in spite of a longstanding dislike of whole grain pastas, I decided to give it a shot. Good call. Brown rice pasta is the only kind I've ever tried that comes even vaguely close to the durum wheat pasta everyone loves. It cooks up al dente, it doesn't fall apart, it's not grainy, and it tastes an awful lot like "the real thing." It's absolutely the only one I'll willingly eat.
Last night, I had a hankering for comfort food--the kind that normally brings with it some health compromise, like mashed potatoes with butter and heavy cream. I've taken this sort of thing up as a challenge; I shoot for maximum pleasure with virtually no downside. For me, pasta is (or at least can be) a tremendously comforting thing to eat, evoking moments of sublime enjoyment from my past.
Among the top ten iconic pasta sauces is tomato and basil. Spaghetti is the classic shape for this, but I chose ziti, which the manufacturers of brown rice pasta for some reason call penne (a glaring misnomer, since "penne" means "pens," owing to the quill-shaped tips). Americans.
The sauce is ridiculously easy to make, but it does have one or two potential pitfalls--not the least of which is burning the garlic. The safest way to do it is to put some olive oil in a cold pan and add several cloves of garlic, thinly sliced, and a few dried red chiles. Turn on the heat and swirl the pan until the garlic is just beginning to turn a tan color. Immediately add chopped Italian tomatoes, salt and pepper, and cook just about four minutes; the tomatoes should retain a little fresh taste, and the sauce should not be too thick. Remove from the heat and stir in a hefty handful of coarsely chopped basil. This whole process can be executed while the pasta cooks.
When the pasta is done, drain, but keep a little of the cooking liquid in the pot. Return the pasta to the pot and add the sauce. Swirl and toss to coat the pasta thoroughly. Eat. At this point you'll be in a position to understand why I like tube shapes with tomato sauce. Don't get me wrong, I do like spaghetti, but there is something about air passing through the juicy tubes, lifting and transporting microscopic bits of aromatic flavor across your palate as you slurp and chew that really awakens the Italian in me.
One note about the water pasta is boiled in: according to Frank Sinatra (rest in peace), it should have enough salt to make it taste like sea water. He was right. I know that sounds like an awful lot of salt, but most of it goes down the drain anyway, and it gives the pasta a delicious flavor in its own right, even without a sauce. You never know what you'll learn from people.