Rethinking pasta sauce

Too much? Too little? What do you think?

By
October 22, 2007

Pasta, old friend, I thought I knew you well. But now I’m not so sure.

First, on Tuesday, we had New York chef and restaurateur Mario Batali on Serious Eats, telling us how to sauce pasta. The upshot of his “Mario Unclogged” video? That when it comes to pasta sauce, a little goes a long way:

Americans overdress their pasta 99.9 percent of the time. It should never be a bowl of soup; it should be noodles — with a little stuff.

Oops. Is that me?

Then, as if on cue, Mark Bittman appeared in the New York Times (both on video and in his “The Minimalist” column) on Wednesday, telling us to do just the opposite. From the column:

Let me propose that you start cooking pasta in a way that might make you the laughingstock of your foodie friends: make more sauce, and serve it on top of less pasta. Do exactly what you’ve learned not to do.

It’s hard to teach an old dog a new trick, but since I just learned to sauce less yesterday, there may be hope.

Both men have well-formed arguments for their approach. An impassioned Batali clings like egg yolk to Italian tradition:

Each one of the . . . noodles is just dressed enough that the wheat — the depth of the flavor of the grain, which is the absolute heart of the Italian agrarian society — is the most important thing.

Bittman, meanwhile, knows he’s walking on eggshells, but he’ll go merrily:

What do you wind up with? Pasta more or less overwhelmed by sauce, which you can view as a cardinal sin or as a moist, flavorful one-dish meal of vegetables with the distinctive, lovable chewiness of pasta.

He beefs up his argument:

It’s an easy way to significantly increase your intake of vegetables without adding too many refined carbohydrates, and may, if you’ve abandoned it, get you back into pasta again.

Need more convincing?

Even setting aside the extreme recommendations of the Atkins diet, it’s widely agreed that highly refined grains — a group that includes the semolina flour from which the best-tasting dry pasta is made — do us little nutritional good. From the point of view of the body, there’s little difference between pasta and white bread (and, for that matter, biscotti); neither has much in the way of protein, vitamins, micronutrients or fiber, and all are digested quickly and may ultimately be stored as fat.

Sauce, he says, especially one rich in vegetables with maybe a little meat for flavor, is full of good things.

Wonder if Nancy Rommelmann caught either of those? On Culinate last week, she shared a tried-and-true family favorite for pasta sauce. Her secret? Plenty of tomatoes and hamburger and lots of time on the stove.

Something tells me that when it comes to pasta, Nancy’s not gonna budge. But me? We’re having sauce and pasta tonight.

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1. by Liz Crain on Oct 22, 2007 at 3:50 PM PDT

I usu. favor sauce too. Which might in part be due to the fact that my pasta is usually from a bag. When I make my own I do use less sauce though so the noodles shine.

2. by Kirsten on Oct 22, 2007 at 5:15 PM PDT

I love the sauce, lots of it.

3. by Carrie Floyd on Oct 24, 2007 at 10:49 AM PDT

When I was a kid I hated noodles (what we called pasta then) and whenever we had spaghetti (noodles with a sauce just like Nancy Rommelmann’s), my mom served me up a bowl of sauce only. Is it funny that my son now eats plain noodles only, hold the sauce? Funny is a funny word....

4. by nancy rommelmann on Oct 24, 2007 at 11:10 AM PDT

I see Batali’s point, Americans often being of the “if a little is good, more is better” school of food thought (deep-fried Coca-Cola, anyone?), I’m with Bittman here; if the sauce is good, why not eat lots of it? As for how my mom’s sauce is eaten: I personally do not just eat it straight, but my stepfather does. Also, my ex used to -- pausing here to laugh -- put it between two slices of white bread.

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