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?