I recently started dating a nice guy after a 5 year relationship hiatus. I’m used to just picking up takeout or making something easy, so my cooking skills are a little rusty. What is something disaster-proof that I can cook for him?
Congratulations on your new relationship. Cooking for someone you care about is a great way to start things off right, especially if you can make something fool-proof. Even if you mess up, though, if you can find the humor (and serve something for dessert, even straight from a package), you don’t risk much, I promise.
I may be the only person on the internet to make this suggestion during the immediate post-New Year’s dieting surge, but I’m going to say that almost nothing is as disaster-proof as making pasta.
That’s right: PASTA. Carbs, baby. IN JANUARY. Trust me.
There are only a few requirements necessary to ensure that packaged pasta turns out well, every time. Here they are:
1) Get the water to a rolling boil, add a good amount of salt, then bring it back up to the boil before adding the pasta. (Make the water taste like the sea—salt is your friend here.)
2) Don’t overcrowd the pot.
3) Cook it al dente, i.e., don’t overcook it. If the package says 9 minutes, cook it to 7 or 8, and then begin checking it. You want it to be cooked, but with a little bit of bite (hence, “al dente.”) Consider pulling it out early, so you can:
4) Finish cooking it through in the sauce. Reserve some pasta water so you can thin out a thicker sauce, if necessary.
5) Don’t over sauce. Drowned pasta is sad pasta.
That’s pretty much it. If you want the height of simplicity but taste that will knock your socks off, don’t miss Marcella Hazan’s three-ingredient tomato sauce.
If you are meat eaters and have some time on your hands, consider this:
1) Cut up a chuck roast into stew-ready pieces, salt and pepper them, then brown them in a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pan in a little oil
2) Remove them, then add some diced onions and sauté
3) Add dried spices (basil, oregano, thyme) and some chopped garlic (to taste), and stir until fragrant (30 seconds to 1 minute)
4) Add a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, and brown a bit
5) Add 1/2 cup of wine, scrape up the browned bits.
6) Return meat to pan, add 2 large cans of pureed tomatoes and a bay leaf.
7) Cook for several hours (or all day) on very low heat, until meat is falling apart.
The smell from this sauce will make anyone who walks into your home start to drool. Not very romantic, I guess, but worth it, I promise.
Want to go lighter? While the pasta is cooking, finely chop a shallot, and using a microplane, remove zest from one lemon. Sauté shallot in a large frying pan with 1-2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoons olive oil. Add the lemon zest and 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary, sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add the juice of the lemon, a splash of white wine, plus some pasta water to thin out the sauce if necessary. Finish pasta in the sauce, top with more fresh rosemary and parmesan.
Add good, fresh parmesan to everything, actually, unless you make pasta with seafood. Cheese + seafood + pasta = Italians crying.
If you do want to go the seafood route and like shrimp, for example, omit the rosemary from the lemon recipe, substitute with fresh dill, and sauté shrimp in the butter/oil/shallot/lemon zest mixture.
Now, if you want a hands-on date (ahem, not that kind of hands-on), you can make homemade pasta together. It’s really easy—eggs + flour, mix together, ta da—and recipes abound on the internet. It can be messy, but it is also fun, and you can make whatever shapes you’d like, you don’t even need a pasta machine. My husband and daughter used to make homemade noodles when she was a preschooler using a heart-shaped cookie cutter, for instance.
I hope this is helpful to you. A nice salad, a bottle of good wine, and any pasta combination will hopefully make for a very happy evening. The beauty of pasta is that you can make endless shapes and endless sauces from endless cuisines, so you can always try something fresh and new (while using the same basic technique.)
In other words, you can have many, many pasta dates, and never eat the same old thing. Here’s hoping your first pasta date leads to many more!