There is classic saying that you always remember your first. Does that phrase ring true for you? I thought of that today because this is my first “official” blog post for The Chopping Block, and I feel so honored to write for the folks who taught me so much about cooking.
I can recall my first class like it was yesterday even though “yesterday” was close to two decades ago. The class was on Thai food which was something I loved to eat but never attempted at home. I loved the description about balancing the sweet, salty, sour and spicy. (And if that description entices you, The Chopping Block is offering another virtual Thai class in March.)
As I walked into the kitchen, I was greeted warmly, handed an apron and nametag. The class was full, and I was paired up with delightful curious food explorers. We were asked how many of us had taken classes before, I was the only one who had never been to a class. All I could think is please be gentle with me.
The class proceeded like clockwork as we learned the background of the ingredients but also what tools were essential in preparing an excellent meal. The one tool restores my memory to this moment was a simple tasting spoon. If I have absorbed one thing in all my classes is the importance of tasting my food and knowing what my flavor components the ingredients entail.
A tiny little spoonful is all that it takes to realize that your dish may need one more sprinkle of salt, squeeze of lemon or a grind of pepper. That tasting spoon is the difference between just getting dinner laid on the table or being able to make a meal that makes you close your eyes in pure satisfaction.
That first day in class at The Chopping Block was the day I met Fish Sauce. The name was a little frightening but then I learned it is the essence of all the things I love about Thai and Vietnamese food.
Simply stated, fish sauce is fermented anchovies and salt. It is the ingredient that is added slowly but purposefully to increase the saltiness with a twinge of sweet and a slight brine chaser. It pairs beautifully with Southeast Asian food but this class taught me that I can play around with fish sauce in different foods that need a boost of earthy umami.
One of my favorite Italian dishes to make with fish sauce is a good old fashion Puttanesca. Conventionally, Puttanesca is an Italian sauce made with tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, red pepper and olives. It is a great pantry meal…. except for the fact that I can’t always find anchovies.
This is where fish sauce comes in. Cooks Illustrated cites that a ½ teaspoon of fish sauce can be substituted for each anchovy called for in a recipe. I never put all my fish sauce in at once. I add half of what the recipe calls for and then take my spoon and taste. Remember, you can add more but it is impossible to take it out!
The following recipe is in the spirit of never forgetting your first and how taking those steps to try something new may in the long run help define you.
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Serves: 4 people
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon garlic chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
28 ounce chopped tomatoes
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup Kalamata olives, finely chopped
1/4 cup Kalamata olives, roughly chopped
1-2 Tablespoons of capers
1-2 Tablespoons Fish Sauce (Red Boat is my favorite brand)
1 pound of spaghetti
Garnish: Fresh chopped parsley and fresh ground pepper
1. In a large skillet (I use my 3.5 quart Le Creuset braiser that I purchased at The Chopping Block) over medium heat, add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Sauté for only about 1 minute, until it is fragrant.
2. Mix in tomato paste and cook another minute.
3. Add in the chopped tomatoes, pinch of sugar, olives, capers and only 1 tablespoon of fish sauce. Bring to a boil, lower heat and cook with frequent stirring for 15 minutes.
4. While the pasta sauce is cooking down, prepare your spaghetti per package instructions and follow the “al dente” timing. I used a thick spaghetti for this sauce because I like how the sauce clings to the fatter noodle. (But in my family let it be known that angel hair rules!)
5. When draining the pasta, reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta water.
6. The sauce is done when it is thick enough for you to run your spoon down the middle and it takes it sweet time to come together. Take a taste. This is when you could add more fish sauce to your liking. Just a little bit at a time.
7. Add the spaghetti to the pan and a little of the pasta water to the pan and use tongs to help move the spaghetti around and coat every strand. For me, this usually is all it takes to finish cooking the pasta and the starchy water helps the sauce cling better.
8. Serve with a hearty grind or two of fresh pepper and sprinkle on your parsley like you mean it.
Interested in learning more interesting ways to use up that spaghetti in your pantry? Join The Chopping Block's virtual Sunday Dinner: Cacio e Pepe on Sunday, February 28 at 4pm CST and you'll make this Italian Feast in just over an hour:
- Shaved Fennel, Kale and Orange Salad with Toasted Hazelnuts
- Cacio e Pepe (Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano, Cracked Black Pepper and Toasted Olive Oil Breadcrumbs)
- Ricotta Fritters Powdered Sugar
If you've ever wanted to try your hand at making fresh pasta, our virtual Pasta Workshop on Saturday, February 27 at 3pm CST guides you through the ins and outs of making pasta dough, rolling noodles and preparing filled pasta in your own kitchen. You'll learn:
- Fresh Pasta Dough
- Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli with Marinara Sauce
- Fettucine with Goat Cheese Cream Sauce