In Praise of Tenderness

by Marcella Hazan on February 24, 2011

When did undercooking replace cooking? When did gritty replace juicy, when did stiff replace pliant? I recall a post by chef Scott Conant in which he lamented the extreme definition of al dente pasta that patrons of the restaurant ever more frequently insisted on. I recently took up the question with a Brazilian food journalist – aptly named Olivia – who was interviewing me for a pasta story that her paper would publish.

The tactile pleasure of eating pasta consists in the kind of resistance that it offers to the bite. It’s a resistance that varies from the plushy gentleness of homemade Bolognese egg pasta to the muscular firmness of Neapolitan spaghetti. But throughout that broad range of textures, the resistance always has an agreeable give that releases flavor not just from the sauce, but also from the pasta dough.  The encounter in the mouth ought not to be a test of strength wherein a tough opponent is overcome by sheer masticating power. What is most dismaying that some Italian pasta producers have jumped on the tougher the better bandwagon.  Cocco, a manufacturer whose product is absolutely top shelf, will recommend 11 minutes for its penne. I cook them 16 minutes and they are still distinctly firm.

The retreat from tenderness is not limited to pasta, it is a general plague. Why have we submitted to eating crunchy green beans that exhibit no flavor, save that of grass? Even worse are the undercooked shell beans that deprive us of the luscious joy of a creamy fully cooked bean. Nor is it only these and other vegetables that have been penalized. Why are we bringing home rock-hard fruit, stuffing it sometimes in a brown bag where we are told it will ripen? It’s the sun not a paper bag that ripens fruit, that makes it produce succulent, sugary flesh. Have we all forgotten the difference?


Comments on this entry are closed.

Gina Melton February 26, 2011 at 8:56 am

Couldn’t agree more!

I also get a chuckle out of people who order their pasta “Al Dante.” I like italian poets as much as the next girl, but what does that have to do with pasta?!?! If you are going to order it, you should probably know how to say it.

Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen February 25, 2011 at 8:29 am

I think that many people grew up eating vegetables that were cooked so long that they turned to mush and the flavors were lost, as a result they are now afraid of cooking vegetables too long, preferring an undercooked vegetable or piece of pasta to an over cooked one. I personally don’t think that one extreme is much better than the other. The key is knowing just how long to cook something to make it tender, the right timing can make a huge difference.

SMITH BITES February 24, 2011 at 3:17 pm

I couldn’t agree more! I do, however, prefer vegetables that aren’t cooked to the point of being unrecognizable which is why I think so many have gone to the other extreme; but give me a sun ripened peach, apple or tomato any day!

Krista February 24, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Amen and AMEN!! The taste of a naturally ripened apple or tomato or mango is so outrageously better than their counterparts. Cheers to beautifully cooked, naturally ripened, and oh so delicious food. :-)

Kit February 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm

I think people are probably overcompensating for the boiled to death veg and pasta that were normal when we were growing up. It’s now all about losing as few vitamins as possible by cooking it as little as possible regardless of flavour.
I’m pretty sure though that certain vegetables, carrots in particular, have more absorbable nutrients after cooking than when raw, so it ain”t necessarily so!
And I’m all for ripe fruit straight from the tree, dripping juice and tenderness, if only the birds haven’t got to it first!

Rosa February 24, 2011 at 10:05 am

A very interesting post that makes us think. Certain things certainly need to be tender and not undercooked. You are right there.

I guess it all has to do with trends.



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