"Add pasta." Okay, when?

Regardless of one's level of culinary skill, it is still quite possible to walk out of a restaurant thinking, "How did they do that?" Some aspects are obvious - the best ingredients give best results - but others can be a bit more elusive such as the tendency to cook everything in a single pot, the goal to reduce the number of dishes to wash. Hard to know how much damage has been done to our expectations about flavor and certainly texture.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was cooking a minestrone-esque soup and presumably followed the recipe which put pasta in a pot alongside raw carrots, celery, meat, etc. These other ingredients all required much longer cooking times than the pasta resulting in, as you'd guess, overcooked pasta. Way overcooked.

But there were more subtle issues. Even in California, there remains a generational tendency toward dried herbs and pre-made packages of "seasonings". I watched him cut up the carrots with a dull knife and thumb positioned squarely in the crosshairs of what sharpness remained (those with any knife skills whatsoever understand how difficult it is to watch a newbie with a knife), and combined all of the ingredients - plus tomatoes - in a thin aluminum pot. By the time it was all assembled, the inclusion of the pasta at the beginning didn't even register.

I'm focused on so many things, the obvious can slip right by. I'm noting the Sambonet flatware was set face-up while pasta is being over-cooked. How did I miss that?

I then clued him in to the idea of cooking the pasta just short of al-dente, and then combinging soup and pasta at the end. Assuming that it will take a few swirls to stir in the pasta, it will be cooked perfectly by the time it reaches the soup bowls.

Those lacking the instinct to know when to add an ingredient can certainly get by with this method. This notion of cooking items separately along with an understanding of why and when to do so is a quantum leap in the making of a good cook.

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