Cooking for Southerners

The Hausfrau has, for many years, had a short list of things she will almost always make for parties. Guests at our cocktail parties know that we are very likely to have cocktail meatballs — those sweet/sour little things you eat with toothpicks, the kind you make with incredibly lowbrow ingredients like canned cranberry sauce or grape jelly — and pimiento cheese. Normally when I make pimiento cheese I throw everything into the food processors and generate a thick paste that’s not entirely smooth, but quite close to it. Now, I know this isn’t “authentic,” but in my book, “easy” wins over “authentic” if it saves me six minutes of hand-grating cheese and mincing roasted red peppers. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is.

But we were recently invited to a dinner party at the home of a woman who grew up in Virginia horse country and who also lived somewhere in the Carolinas for a long while. I offered, naturally, to bring something to the dinner party, and said, “Would you like me to make a dessert?” because it was my dim recollection that she is not a big baker. She wrote back quickly, saying, “Will you bring pimiento cheese?”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “Done and done,” I wrote back, but my brow was furrowed. I couldn’t bring Cuisinart pimiento cheese to this woman’s house! That would be heresy, or something.

So I did it all by hand. I got out my big orange-red Pyrex bowl and grated Cheddar into it, and then I minced roasted red peppers, and I scooped in some Hellmann’s mayonnaise. I suppose I could have made a special trip somewhere to find some Duke’s, but I have to draw lines somewhere. I used all my animal strength and put some raw horseradish through a garlic press to get some oomph into the mix, and added a little dry mustard. Then I mixed and mixed and mixed until the stuff looked right. “It doesn’t look right,” said my husband, peering over my shoulder. “It doesn’t look like how you usually do it. It’s not almost smooth.”

“Yeah, well, how I usually make it is wrong,” I said, “because I’m a lazy Yankee. You’re supposed to do it by hand, all the cheese grating and everything, and it’s supposed to look lumpy like this.”

“Oh,” he said, doubtfully.

We both looked into the bowl. The mixing bowl, while very pretty, was way too big for serving this dish attractively; it looked as though I’d thought I was making pimiento cheese for 20 and only came up with pimiento cheese for six. “I need to move this into a smaller container,” I said, and I grabbed another little Pyrex dish, a blue-grey rectangular tub that I bought on a whim at the English Building Market and have used more times than I can count since then. It’s funny because when I bought it, I thought, “I so don’t need this, but I cannot resist,” and it turns out to be one of the most-used serving pieces in the kitchen. I spooned the pimiento cheese into it and the tub was almost full, but it still looked a little… naked. “Needs a garnish,” I said. “What the hell do I have I can use as a garnish?”

I opened the fridge and stared into it. There was a big, big jar of green olives stuffed with pimientos. “Perfect,” I said.

I got about twenty olives out and sliced each one in half and then I began to place them around the edges of the cheese to make what I told myself was an attractive border. The thing is, no matter what you do, green olives just aren’t that attractive. They are inevitably that…. well, there’s a reason why there’s a color called olive drab. However, the deed was done. I pressed the last sliced olive into the cheese and stood back to survey the product. “Look,” I said to my husband, “It’s 1953.”

*********

We carried the tub of pimiento cheese to the dinner party and were introduced to the other guests; our daughter immediately ran off to play with our hosts’ son, whom she adores, and I held out the little tub of pimiento cheese and said, “Um, here’s your pimiento cheese.” I had never met the other guests to this party and hoped they wouldn’t be people who said, “oh, cheese? Not for me, I’m vegan.” I got lucky: both of them gushed, “Pimiento cheese?” and looked at me with great interest. It turned out that one of them grew up in Texas, where, I’m given to understand, pimiento cheese is kind of a food group. “I made this,” I said, “and I tried to be a little more authentic about it than I usually am, but — well, I hope you guys will like it.” The hostess brought out a tray of sliced baguette and some crackers and everyone dug in. “This is good,” the men told me. We addressed the possible variants involved with pimiento cheese. There was cheerful discussion of my use of horseradish versus the Texan’s mother’s use of jalapeños. “Are you from the South?” I was asked. I shook my head and explained that I am decidedly not from the South, I just have a thing about Southern cooking. By the time dinner was served and we were all seated around the table, the Auntie Mame jokes were flying thick and fast, we’d gone through three bottles of wine, and the tub of pimiento cheese was empty.

I’ll be making more today. We’re having brisket for dinner, and I have this idea that I should make biscuits and a green pea salad to serve on the side. Pimiento cheese would go very well with that,  I think, and it serves the Rule of Four (cf. Lee Bailey and Nora Ephron). In the meantime: better buy more peppers.

Sometimes Recipes Aren’t Worth a Damn.

I had to do two things between the hours of 11 and 2: I had to bake cookies (“had to” being a relative term, yes) and I had to eat lunch (non-negotiable). I had this idea to make peanut butter shortbread cookies, and Googled up a plausible-sounding recipe. It seemed like it would be not sweet enough perhaps — it called for only half a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and no granulated sugar at all — but I thought that, perhaps, since commercial peanut butter has so much sugar in it, it would turn out just fine.

So I followed the recipe. I’m going to tell you exactly what I did, so that you can follow along and share in my emotional rise and fall.
I creamed one stick of butter with 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter. In a measuring cup I whisked together  1 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a pinch of salt. You have to whip the butter and peanut butter together for a surprisingly long time to get it right — I know this from experience cooking with peanut butter — you don’t want it just “combined until smooth,” but you want it absolutely creamy looking. The peanut butter mixture actually turns a whole different color through the process — you wind up with something that looks like a pale peanut butter sauce to serve on ice cream, or the filling of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. Sounds good, right?

Once the butters are whipped together, add the dry ingredients. The recipe I was working with said to fold in 3/4 of a cup of chocolate chips, but I opted to do 1/3 cup peanuts and 1/3 cup mini chocolate chips. Then you roll this up in parchment paper or plastic wrap, to make a tube, and chill for a bit. I chilled mine for about an hour, and then I sliced the dough and baked it. You need the oven at 350°; the cookies bake in 12-14 minutes, depending on how thick the slices are.

The cookies I’ve got are ok; the texture is nice and crumbly. But they are nowhere near sweet enough, and nowhere near peanut-buttery enough. I’m very disappointed. I am so disappointed that I am wondering if I will be able to do a second batch this afternoon. This time, I would add 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, and possibly up the peanut butter, too. I grasp that you need the confectioner’s sugar to achieve the texture of shortbread (you could, I suppose, substitute cornstarch for some of the flour to achieve the same end), but something’s gotta give. Because these cookies, in a word, suck. I mean, “ok” is “sucks,” you get me? A cooky is supposed to be not just an “ok” thing. A cooky is supposed to bring light and joy. A cooky is supposed to be a thing where when you take your first bite of one, you’re already going, “yeah, I think I’ll have about four or five of these. I better pour a glass of milk.”

The website where I got this recipe had 212 comments for these cookies — it was astonishing, the range of reviews. Some people loved them. Some people, like me, were plainly disgusted — one person wrote, basically, “These suck, I’m sticking to my old recipe.” One guy wrote that he was planning to make them using honey roasted peanut butter and mint chocolate chips, and all I can say to him is, “Good luck, man” — I can’t imagine putting mint chocolate chips into a peanut butter based recipe, but whatever.

(Sometimes, winging it in the kitchen should lead to disaster but results in something quite enjoyable. The opposite of the failed peanut butter cookies. For example, following no recipe whatsoever, I recently made myself a lunch that was perfectly lovely and exactly the kind of thing I like to eat when I’m by myself. Since we had no bread in the house, and hence I had no way of making a cheese sandwich, I was forced to boil some pasta to get some ballast into me mid-day. I opened the fridge to see what I could put on the noodles, and found…. not much. Three tablespoons of leftover tomato sauce waiting to be used up (how? there is nothing in the world that requires only three tablespoons of tomato sauce, except dressing a pizza; and we have no pizza dough on hand — this was was, in fact, leftover sauce from when I made pizza and strombolis earlier in the week, and it’s not my fault no one used it up on the stromboli last night); some eggs; cheese. (Also the usual array of condiments and dairy products — but the question was, “How could I assemble stuff here into a sauce without putting real effort into it?”)

The answer was: take an egg; crack it into the tub of leftover tomato sauce; whisk in the egg. Add a pat of butter. When the noodles are cooked, drain them and then put them in a big bowl. Pour the egg/tomato sauce on top, and stir and stir and stir until everything’s coated with sauce. The egg, of course, cooks to safe eating in the heat of the pasta. Top with grated Parmesan. Sit down. Eat. Try to not think about the news of the day. I recommend watching old episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Laura Petrie is quite a cook, from what I can tell.

I find, lately, that more than half the time that I dig up a recipe online, it is a disappointment. I can’t quite figure it out. I can’t decide if it’s that these things are a matter of taste — I just don’t happen to like that kind of cooky, say — or if it’s just that the internet is so filled with copied-and-pasted bad ideas that it’s just not a reliable way to look for recipes. The thing is, cookbooks are often no better — though I’ve certainly come to know certain writers’ strengths and weaknesses and I know where I can turn for the most reliable results. We know how critical I am of certain cookbooks that have recipes that simply don’t work. Even “foolproof” recipes; even recipe outlets that are usually as reliable as the sun coming up in the morning (I’m looking at you, Christopher Kimball); I find, in recent months, that about 1/4 of my baking things other than an old tried-and-true has resulted in sadness.

Well, tonight I’m making a tried-and-true baked thing for dinner: pizza. I can’t give you a recipe because I didn’t follow one. I took water,  a little yeast, a little sugar, a little salt, some olive oil, and three kinds of flour (KAF unbleached white, KAF bread flour, and some Italian semolina I have sitting around) and I made dough. It’s rising now. I’m gonna make pizza tonight using the scraps of whatever I’ve got in the fridge — I know there’s a few ounces of tomato sauce, a few ounces of mozz, a little of this, a little of that. I’ll be better off winging it, I am positive, than I would be if I followed a recipe.

I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something, but I’m not gonna dwell on it now.

Pastrami Risotto. Because I’m a daredevil.

It was the end of a long and difficult afternoon involving bus travel, poor weather, and unhappy children. I was facing making dinner without a lot of emotional steam to work with, and also without a concrete plan. This is how someone like the Hausfrau winds up staring into the refrigerator and saying, “Sure, I could make a pastrami risotto.”

It began when I was at the Italian market down the street a couple blocks, contemplating pizza toppings. This was a few nights ago: it was my daughter’s birthday dinner. She had requested that I make pizza. A spur of the moment reminder from my daughter than I’d made an excellent stromboli with pastrami inspired me to buy a pound of pastrami. “We’ll use it on the pizza, Papa will love it,” I said to my daughter, who nodded. I had visions of pastrami sandwiches, another stromboli, and so on. We carried the pastrami home and I assembled the pizzas and they were quite good. One was pastrami, red onion, and olive; the other was spinach and olive. Those were some fine pizzas.

I wrapped up the rest of the pastrami — the cats yowled indignantly — and felt smug about it, thinking I had a trick up my sleeve to help me jazz up dinners for the rest of the week.

And when it came to last night: it was dismal outside. It was pouring rain when my husband walked in the door. I was trying to be optimistic about the tiny epiphany I thought I’d had, which was, People use proscuitto to form a layer of flavor when they’re starting all kinds of italian dishes, including when they’re making risotto; why couldn’t I use pastrami the same way?
So when my husband came home, the rain was pounding down and I was in the kitchen chopping onion and I said to my daughter, “Bring Papa a towel from the drawer” — pointing my foot to the low drawer where I keep plastic storage tubs and towels to be used for cleaning up messes, along with a few special-purpose linens (tea towels suitable for use as pastry cloths; cheesecloth; stuff like that). She reached into the drawer and then ran to help her father, a dutiful daughter, and my husband came into the kitchen, squidge squidge squidge, to find me roughly chopping long slices of pastrami. “Whatcha making?” he asked cheerfully. “Pastrami risotto,” I said. He looked skeptical, but I pressed on.

I had some nice vegetable stock that I’d made; I heated it up and used it to start to cook the risotto. I added a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to pep things up a bit. I had a lot of sliced red onion in the pot, and the pastrami, and the rice, and everything smelled quite delicious. Toward the end of the cooking time I added green peas and parsley. My daughter walked over and stuck her nose over the pot. She made approving noises. I was,  thus, optimistic that this meal would be greeted with pleasure. It did, for sure, look absolutely beautiful: the red pastrami and the red onion looked gorgeous with the bright dots of green peas and parsley. I mean, it looked like something you’d totally want to eat, and it smelled like something you’d totally want to eat.

Instead, we all sat down to eat, and while no one complained that the food was bad, no one seemed to actually enjoy it very much.

It was fine.
There’s plenty left over.

It was today when I started to sort the laundry — one of many small tasks I had to tackle today — that I found my biggest piece of cheesecloth in the laundry. “What the hell,” I said to myself. I knew I hadn’t used it for anything — I haven’t used cheesecloth since I think last summer. And then I realized: my beloved girl had handed her dripping wet father a piece of cheesecloth to use as a towel. I’m sure he was confused, but too polite to say anything like, “no, can you get me an actual towel?”

So I laundered it. And I’ll be the one to eat the leftover pastrami risotto, for lunches, tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It’ll be fine.

Hausfrau Roadshow

The Hausfrau usually keeps to herself more than you’d imagine when she’s out in public. True, I have a life in the world, and I talk to people  and stuff, but by and large I don’t put on my Hausfrau hat unless specifically asked to, like when I’m asked to be a guest on someone’s radio show or something. But today I was at a pricey supermarket downtown, and a moment just happened and I had to spring into action in Hausfrau, or maybe Housebitch, mode, to help out a total stranger.

I was at the Elm City Market, which is not in fact the most expensive supermarket in the State of Connecticut, but a lot of people feel like they gouge you. The reality is, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, more nuanced than that. Anyhow, I decided today to stop in and buy a challah from the company they stock (just to see what it’s like) and also pick up something to serve for Shabbat dinner. Also to buy the fancy non-mint toothpaste I like; I’m low on toothpaste. Not that you needed to know that.

So I’m standing there at the packaged meat section, which is not the same as the meat counter, and wondering if I should buy some meat there or go to my usual butcher on the way home. I don’t like to buy meat from anyone except Jimmy at P&M, but I was already anticipating a rather complicated agenda and I decided that to simplify matters I would get my meat at Elm City Market. I stared at the options and noticed that ground beef was on special. I hefted a package and decided to go for it (we’ve been eating chicken all week, and meatloaf is always popular here). I was wondering if I should get one package or two when a man squeezed in next to me and stared, befuddled, at the shelves.

“Am I in your way?” I asked him.

“No, you’re good,” he said. He looked around and saw packages of hamburger patties,”Ok, here we go,” he said. He grabbed one, started to walk away, and then came back. “I better get two,” he said.

He turned to leave and something in me just had to say something. “You could save a lot of money buying a package of this instead!” I said to him, pointing to the packages of ground beef. The man stopped short. “What?”
I said, “Look, what do those hamburger patties cost per pound?” He said, “I dunno!” He looked at the packages. I can’t remember the number he read off, but it was in the neighborhood of $7 per pound. “This stuff’s only $3.49 a pound,” I said. “Do you need the meat to be already in patties or can you make the patties yourself?” “Aw, my wife’s making it!” he said. “Well, does she mind shaping the patties?” “No, she don’t mind,” “Well,” I said, “Why not save yourself a few bucks? I mean, that’s a lot of meat to buy at a higher price.” “Boy, you’re right,” he said, putting the patties back and reaching for a package of the cheaper, less-elegantly presented meat. “I’m not really a grocery shopper,” he said. “But that’s a big difference.”
I nodded. “It’s ok, I am a grocery shopper, and I just … I don’t know, I had to say something.”
“No, I’m glad you did!” he said. “You take care, now,” he told me, and I waved as he dashed off to the checkout line.

I paid for my few purchases and took the bus home, thinking about it for a while: how many people need help figuring out how to buy groceries? Is this how everyone buys food? Am I the only person who thinks, “I will NOT pay extra for pre-formed hamburger meat?” I mean, I never make hamburgers at home, but —

It was all very interesting. I came home and made a panade to use to make my meatloaf. I’m wondering if that guy’s wife will see the meat this afternoon and say, “Hm, this would make a good meatloaf. I’m gonna make meatloaf instead.” I really hope she does. The world needs more homemade meatloaves.

Double Cream. Maybe. I’m Not Sure.

The other day I was at the Elm City Market in downtown New Haven. It used to be a genuine food co-op; the co-op failed, and now it’s just a grocery store that caters to an extremely food-aware, and pretty affluent, clientele. Some items are crazy expensive and some are perfectly reasonable. On the whole, the quality is very good indeed. While I do not do most of my shopping there (far from it) I’ve come to rely on it for a few categories of things I can’t easily obtain elsewhere.

A case in point: it is one of the few shops I can get to easily that has my preferred brand of milk — Farmer’s Cow — in big jugs. We go through a lot of milk, and while I’m not wild about buying milk in plastic jugs, generally, there’s no question this is more cost-effective than the waxed cardboard cartons. So once in a while, I pop by the Elm City Market and buy milk; I also like to snag Cabot or Arethusa Farm Dairy brands’ sour cream, and sometimes I’ll pick up a tub of really good yogurt, usually Arethusa.

A few days ago I was in there getting my milk and some yogurt and my plan was to buy a big tub of yogurt so that we’d have some to eat for a few days and then I’d use the last of the yogurt as a starter for a batch of homemade. I thought, “Well, with this big container of Farmer’s Cow milk, we should be fine,” but then my eye landed on a smaller container of milk that had a $1.99 sale sticker on it. Kimball Brook was the name of the dairy. I knew nothing about it. But it said “Cream on Top Whole Milk,” and I found that interesting. I decided that for two bucks, I could afford to take it home and see what it was like.

This afternoon I opened the carton because I needed milk for making carrot pudding. Actually, I needed cream, which was something I didn’t have (technically speaking). Reading the recipe that said I needed 1/4 cup of heavy cream, I thought, “I bet the stuff on top of that carton of milk will work,” so I opened the milk, and I’ll be damned: the stuff on top of the milk was a solid, unpourable mass. In a good way. “HOLY CRAP,” I said loudly. My daughter, sitting at the kitchen table glumly writing a thank-you note, said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I said. “But you remember how we were watching Two Fat Ladies and they were using double cream to make that cake?” My daughter nodded. “I think I have double cream here,” I said, peering into the bottle. “Look at this!” I said. I carried the bottle over to her. “Ewwwwwww,” she said, squinching up her nose.

“No,” I said, “This is incredibly cool.” I took a knife and jabbed it into the carton. Milk came up through the cream; the cream had formed a plug, a second seal, on top of the milk. “This is just like the milk that your grandma and I used to buy when we lived in England,” I said. “This is amazing!”

“Gross,” said my American daughter.
“Be that as it may,” I said, “I am using this to make dinner.”

I used it to make a carrot pudding. Carrot pudding is the kind of vegetable pudding that was standard fare in households in another era: a pureed, cooked vegetable, with cream and egg added, poured into buttered ramekins, and baked. In this case, a pound of carrots was prepped, boiled in a small amount of water, and then pureed with two eggs, salt, pepper, a pinch of nutmeg, and about 1/2 cup of cream from the top of this bottle of milk. The recipe I used (which I found somewhere online, and which was sufficiently dull and inaccurate that I’m not even going to link to it) advised using 1/4 cup of cream (which didn’t seem like a enough to me) and baking the puddings for twenty minutes. At twenty minutes, these things were still basically raw. It took 45 minutes at 375° to get these done correctly. When you put the puree into the cups, it just looks like orange slop, not too inspiring. But it bakes up into this sweetly puffy little thing that you can either serve in the ramekin or turn out from its mold onto a plate. It’s true it’s not an exciting dish, though certainly one could add spices and such to make it more interesting. I think the purpose of it is just to hide the essential fact of “vegetable” and make it soft and comforting and a bright, colorful spot on an otherwise drab plate of food. In my case, I was serving it alongside peppery steak and a delicious-but-not-interesting-looking curried rice with chickpeas and coconut milk. So the carrot pudding was just the thing.

However: there is no question that Kimball Brook Farm milk is a very interesting addition to my kitchen. The milk is very rich. I am looking forward to making yogurt with it. Stay tuned.

 

Easy Cooking for the Easily Distracted: Pasta with Onion, Egg, and Sour Cream

Maybe this sounds vile to you, but bear with me. I didn’t serve this to my family (though maybe I should); this is a meal I made for myself on a night when I was alone in the house and I didn’t have to worry about making anyone but myself happy.

I was, I should add, also making chocolate honey cakes at the same time I made this meal; part of why I did what I did was that it allowed me to be cooking dinner at the same time I did other things — other much messier, more attention-demanding things. Baking chocolate honey cakes is all well and good but it takes energy. Making pasta with onion, egg, and sour cream takes (I learned) very very little energy, though it does require time.

This meal was going to be just pasta with onions and sour cream, but then I mistakenly cracked open four eggs when I only needed two for the cake; so I incorporated the other two eggs in the pasta dish. No one suffered as a result, I can assure you.

In a small heavy pot heat up a couple tablespoons of olive oil (not extra-virgin) and a tablespoon of butter. Thinly slice two large onions and a couple of fat cloves of garlic and bung them into the pot; let them cook for a really long time. Like, an hour and a half even, Stir occasionally. Grind in some pepper. The onions let off a lot of liquid; let them just simmer in their juices, with the heat on pretty low, but not all-the-way low.

In a small bowl, whisk together two eggs (I had jumbo eggs on hand, so that’s what I used) and a couple tablespoons of sour cream. Grate in maybe 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.

Cook fettuccine (or other long skinny pasta) in boiling water; drain; dump egg mixture and onion mixture on top and toss and toss and toss.

The resulting dish is delicious, but very dull looking. I make no apologies. It would be a nice side to serve with some red meat and a bright green vegetable. But I ate it all by itself (and all by myself) for dinner tonight. And I will do it again some day, I am sure.

How to Cook Pasta: By Request

The other day my husband and child and I were in the car and our daughter was bemoaning the fact that she doesn’t know how to cook. We pointed out that she can barely see into pots on the stove — she’s not tall enough, and I hold that if she has to stand on a chair to see what’s going on at the stove, she’s not tall enough to safely cook — so it’s not really something we expect of her at this point. “I can’t even make noodles,” she lamented.
“Well,” I said, “That’s not true, really, you know exactly how to make noodles.”
“No I don’t,” she pouted.
I said, “Sure you do. What do you do, you boil water in a big pot, and you put in the noodles.”
“But I don’t know EXACTLY how to do it,” she said.
“Why don’t you tell her how?” suggested my husband.
And so I began a monologue. “First you get a big pot and you fill it about halfway or two-thirds with water. You need a lot of water, but you don’t want to fill it all the way to to the top, because then the pot is too heavy to lift. Then you put the lid on the pot and you put the pot on the stove and you turn on the burner to the highest heat. Then you wait for the water to boil.”
“How do you know when it’s boiling?” my daughter asked.
“Well, you can hear it,” my husband said.
“You can hear it, and also you see steam shooting out from under the lid,” I said. “And when you lift the lid to look inside you’ll see the water’s all bubbly, big bubbles rolling up to the top of the pot, not little bubbles. So then you take your pasta and you dump it in and you stir it right away. You have to stir it right away or else it’ll stick together and you can’t unclump it later. And you need to stir the noodles once or twice while they’re cooking.” My husband nodded.

“So you let the pasta boil. Sometimes it cooks really fast and sometimes it takes a little while. Spaghetti is usually about nine or ten minutes.”
“How do you know how long?” asked my daughter.
“The box usually tells you. It depends on the shape. Chunk-style shapes take the longest time usually, maybe ten minutes. The shortest time is angel hair, which cooks really fast, in about three minutes. Really fast. So you have to keep an eye on it before it turns into mush.”
“So then,” I continued, “You get a colander out and you put it in the sink. Before you put it in the sink, though, you should make sure you don’t have dirty dishes and stuff sitting in the sink. Make sure the sink is empty before you put the colander in. You put in the colander, then you go and stir the noodles again, and you pull one out to test it that it’s cooked. If it’s cooked the way you want it, then you take pot holders and you carry the pot to the sink and you pour the water out through the colander, and you let the noodles fall into the colander. Then you put the noodles back into the pot and put on your sauce and you’re done.” I thought for a minute. “Sometimes, before you drain the noodles, you want to dip a measuring cup into the pot to save some of the cooking water.”

“How come?”
“Because sometimes you want the cooking water to help make your sauce right. Like when you’re making a pesto sauce, if it’s too thick to stir into the noodles, you can thin it out with the cooking water. Also it helps to heat up the sauce a little bit, so you’re not just dumping cold-from-the-fridge pesto sauce onto your nice hot noodles.”

“You should write this down,” my husband said.

So I did.

Postscript: one regular reader, who doesn’t cook much, asked me in a private message, “Aren’t you supposed to put salt or oil or something into the water to keep it from boiling over?” I remember that people talk about these things all the time.
I can’t believe I linked to a Smithsonian Magazine article about cooking, but there it is: when I Googled on the subject, this was the first thing that came up, and it wasn’t such a bad recap of how to make pasta (though clearly the commenters find it lacking, and if I were to write it, I’d do it differently (duh, look what you just read), but whatever).
Anyhow: There is a school of thought that says you should add a bit of oil to the pot to prevent boiling over: I hold that if you don’t fill the pot too much, this ceases to be a concern, and that doing this is basically a waste of good oil and makes for a nastier pot to wash up without much benefit during the cooking process.
As for the salt: the reason to add salt has nothing to do with water boiling over, but is about adding flavor. Some people really like salt a lot. I find that I am easily overwhelmed by salt in food, and see no reason to add it to pasta water. If I do this, I am very likely to feel that the finished, sauced dish is ludicrously over-salted, because I’ve got my sauce salted to the degree I like. (If my husband and child want to add salt, as they often do, that’s their business. I don’t like that they add salt, I find it insulting, but it is their choice, and I do understand that.) This is particularly an issue with sauces that have a lot of Parmesan cheese in them, because Parmesan is really salty.

So I don’t salt my pasta water.

The real issues with making pasta are 1. don’t let the noodles stick together while cooking and 2. don’t overcook them. The fact is, you CAN make good noodles in a minimum of water (you can, if you want to, cook noodles the way you’d make risotto, though you’d have to have a weirdly shaped pan if you wanted to do it with spaghetti — short, chunk-style shapes, though, and orzo, this is not a problem). But your average spaghetti-with-meatballs dinner, follow my instructions and you’ll be fine.
Not you are planning to make spaghetti and meatballs or anything.