Let's pretend for a moment you were asked to translate yourself into a plate of food.
If you were to turn the phrase "You are what you eat" on its ear and attempt to eat what you are, what exactly would you be eating? What would it look like if you laid bare all those little bits of yourself-- your own, personal ingredients, I suppose-- and put them on a plate for all the world to see?
And what would you taste like? Would everyone want a piece of you? Would you wind up as bland and dry as Zweiback toast? Or would you be so off-putting that you'd just sit there, scorned, like a half-melted aspic on a cruise ship buffet table? It's a little unnerving to think about.
Unnerving, but interesting.
At least, to me it is.
Discovering My Inner Dish
Wandering into work one evening not very long ago, I grabbed a little food and sat down to eat in the back of the restaurant at the long, oaken table where my co-workers were doing likewise.
My friend Amelia, who was sitting across from me and quietly folding napkins, looked up said in a sing-songy voice:
And then she went back to folding. It was just her silly way of saying hello.
"Uh-oh, Procopi-o's?" I repeated.
"Sure, just like Spaghetti-o's, but more Procopio-ier." In all my years on earth, no one had ever set my last name to a commercial jingle for canned pasta, nor had anyone ever used the adjective "Procopio-ier".
Amelia alternately suggested I might make a lovely breakfast cereal of some sort, but I was more enamored with the idea of becoming pasta. Perhaps if she had pitched the breakfast food idea at one of our pre-lunch service meals, I would have been more inclined to see myself as coated with sugar and drowned in milk.
All evening, I kept hearing her voice in my head singing that little, highly-personalized jingle, which made the instance when she came up behind me to sing it in my ear all the more wonderfully disturbing. I may have been chatting with my guests about goat stew and fried cheese, but all I could think about were Procopi-o's.
I needed to get them out of my system. And, according to my own, special brand of logic, getting them out of my system could only be done by getting them into my system. I decided to make myself some Procopi-o's, whatever those might be. I would take little bits of myself-- metaphorically speaking-- and put them into a recipe. I was going to find out what I was made of, throw it all together, and see how I turned out.
In essence, I was going to eat myself.
I tossed the idea around for days. Pasta? Of course. And said pasta would have to be circular because, after all, I was making Procopi-o's. But what to serve them with? How should they be dressed?
I wanted something cheesy and saucy and spicy, but with a little bit of ham thrown into the mix. I thought about adding a bit of bitterness to the dish but, upon second thought, I decided to remain intentionally self-delusional and opted instead for a little bit of flat-leafed parley-- purely decorative, which is how I like to see myself on my better days.
But there was something missing. "Oh, it needs a little booze," I thought. Not to function, mind you, but merely to loosen things up.
I would look up recipes, because I allow myself to be influenced by others. I would sift through them and filter them to suit my tastes. And, being the genetic mutt that I am, I would hybridize: Pasta alla Vodka meets Pasta all' Amatriciana. Boozy, hammy, and biting.
How appropriate. How perfect.
Or so I had hoped.
There was one small problem with this idea-- I have a low opinion of vodka. To me vodka: a) It doesn't taste like anything and b) serves no purpose except to make fruit juice boozier (see: girl drink drunks). I'm a gin man, so gin it would have to be. But would gin actually work in a pasta sauce?
Why not? It would certainly add a little note of interest that vodka could never provide. And, before you ask: yes, I do like to think of myself as interesting. Doesn't everyone? I think it's part of how we all get through the day.
Putting Myself Through The Wringer
I'd never given much thought to pasta-making, but when I pulled out my grandmother's old machine, I realized three important things:
1. I haven't made pasta since the late 20th Century
2. I lost the little clamp that holds the pasta maker in place at some point during the 21st Century.
3. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to form my pasta into cute little "o" shapes.
And then I thought to myself, "This is exactly why you should make this-- you never really sure of what you're doing anyway, so just do what you always do and make things up as you go along."
I hunted around the kitchen looking for a way to make "o" shapes. At the back of a little drawer where all the small, unused cooking implements go to die, I found my grandmother's cannoli forms. Those would do very nicely, I thought.
The making of the dough was simple enough: two kinds of flour, some eggs, a little olive oil, and a splash of water. Make a little well, mix it all up, and knead, knead, knead. Rather than knead by hand, I remained true to my own laziness and let my stand mixer do all the work. I thought about how that little machine was working so hard at developing the dough's gluten. And then I thought about how it has been more than a year since I've been to the gym. I took another drag off my cigarette and continued to watch.
I turned the dough out onto a floured cutting board and shaped it into a disc and let it sit, covered, for thirty minutes to let it rest. I followed its lead by crawling back into bed for the same amount of time with a collection of James Thurber's short stories.
You know, for inspiration.
After the dough and I were sufficiently rested, we met up again in the kitchen. I fed it bit by bit into the pasta maker, holding onto the machine with my free hand so that it didn't fall over onto the floor and onto my feet, all the while imagining myself being put through that same wringer. "Well this feels familiar," I said to the dough as I thought of the ghosts of boyfriends past.
I managed to achieve the shape I wanted for my pasta by rolling it around the cannoli forms, but worried how the pieces would perform when thrown into hot water. Would they hold up or would they fall apart? It amused me to think that nearly every step of this whole food preparation process had some sort of glaring corollary to my own life.
There was nothing to do but plunge the Procopi-o's into hot water. It was mildly discomforting to stand over a pot of boiling pasta and stare into it as though one's life depended on it. But, there they were-- those little bits of me slowly floating to the top of the foaming water, surviving. And mostly intact. I scooped those babies out of the pot with a little bit of their bath water and let them cool. Then I tasted one of them.
I was disappointed.
It's hard to imagine what it was I expected from a small circle of flour and egg. It tasted like pasta. Of course, it was pasta-- a little doughy, but pasta, nonetheless. I was disappointed not because it was bad, but because it wasn't perfect. I caught myself staring at a bowl of pasta-- one that was supposed to represent me-- with scorn.
"Well, there you have it," I thought, "So self-critical that I'm shaming myself over a fucking bowl of pasta." Was I really so upset that it wasn't perfect? Temporarily, yes. I stepped back for a moment and thought how ridiculous I was being.
And then I thought back to what a friend of mine said to me the other day. He left a comment on one of my previous blog posts stating that he was a little relieved I couldn't come to a party was throwing, because I would have "spotted the flaws" in his desserts. He was nervous about "having a gaggle of food bloggers" standing around, judging them. In response, I wrote the following:
But here’s the thing… I adore flaws. Flaws are like fingerprints; they express an unavoidable individuality. To me, a home made dessert with a little flaw thrown in is infinitely preferable to the factory-made, calibrated sameness of anything that is store bought.
Long may the flawed flag wave.
Well, helloooo, hypocrite! Suddenly, I thought of a little song and hummed it to myself, though not as tearfully as the little girl below:
I tend to give others (or so I like to think) very good advice, but I very seldom follow it myself. I'm flawed. You're flawed. Everything that's worthwhile is flawed. If anyone on this earth were perfect, he or she should probably be whisked up into heaven like Jesus's mother because there would be nothing left to do or learn here.
Flaws are what make people interesting, myself included. If I were perfect all the time a) everyone would hate me and b) I would be a complete bore. And since I consider being a bore a major character defect, we'd just be getting back around to being imperfect, now wouldn't we?
Flaws are what make us individuals.
With that in mind, I tossed my little Procopi-o's into the gin sauce, put great spoonfuls of it into a bowl, topped it with its awaiting garnishes, and dug in. Not perfect, but warm and cheesy, a little smoky and a little spicy. And it did not smell of booze. It was oddly satisfying.
Just like me.
Pasta alla Gin
I hope you'll forgive me for not writing down the recipe for Procopi-o's. Like myself, the recipe needs a bit of work. Besides, very few of you reading this are real life Procopios anyway, and those of you who are more than likely won't be making "o"-shaped pasta any time soon. I suggest you find your own shapes and dishes- ones that better fit your own preciously flawed self.
The sauce, however, is worth making. Seriously. With gin. If you've got pancetta or guanciale lying about, you could certainly substitute that for the bacon but, other than one or two people I know, who has guanciale sitting in their refrigerator? I've used ingredients that are more or less easy to find because, well, I'm more or less easy to find.
Serves two to four of you. Or two to four of me. Given the subject matter of this post, it's nearly impossible for me to tell.
1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes (San Marzano, if they're available to you)
1 pound of any tube-shaped pasta you like (penne, rigatoni, mostaccioli, etc.)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted (it really doesn't matter)
1 cup finely diced yellow onion
4 cloves finely minced garlic (garlic is minced, onions are diced-- please discuss)
As much crushed red pepper flakes as you dare.
1 teaspoon of salt (or more, if you feel it needs it)
1/4 cup gin, stirred, not shaken. And very dry, please.
1/2 cup cream
Freshly-ground pepper, as much as you please
About 1 cup of freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Finely-chopped Italian parsley
4 slices of bacon, cooked, cooled, and chopped into adorable little chunks
1. Bring six quarts of salted water to a boil, which means turning the burner all the way up to "11". Dump pasta into the boiling water and stir. If you are using dried pasta, cook for 8 to 10 minutes (until al dente), if using fresh pasta, just cook it until it's done. You're a big boy/girl; go with your instincts. Save about 1/2 cup of the water, drain pasta, place in a bowl, and mix with the water (to prevent the pasta from drying out).
2. In a food processor (or food mill), purée the tomatoes. Stare at them for a moment or to for no other reason but that you think they're pretty and wonder that, if you stick your finger in for a taste and accidentally cut yourself on the blade, would any one notice? Would it change color? Would bleeding into the sauce take this whole "cooking myself" business a step too far? Add salt.
3. In a large skillet, heat olive oil and butter until hot and bubbly, but not so far as to brown it. Add onions and cook over medium heat for about two minutes. Add garlic and crushed pepper flakes. Cook for another minute.
4. Add your (blood-free) purée of tomatoes to the pan and stir. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add gin: 1/4 cup for the sauce, 1/2 cup for the cook. Continue to simmer for another five minutes or so.
5. Turn off the heat and add the cream, gently incorporating it into the sauce. Add ground pepper and about 1/2 cup of grated cheese and stir in. Taste again, adding more salt and pepper flakes, if you feel the urge.
6. Add pasta to the sauce, gently tossing so that each piece is coated thoroughly.
7. Transfer the pasta into either a) individual serving bowls or b) one, enourmous communal trough. Garnish with bacon (or pork product of choice), parsley, and more grated cheese.
8. If you are eating this dish alone, pour yourself a large glass of wine (or a martini, because it pairs nicely with this particular dish), pick up a fork, and slowly cannibalize yourself. If you are serving this pasta to guests, sit back and watch them dig in, all the while saying, in a quiet little voice, "Eat me."