Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is fresh pasta better than dried?

 Bronze spaghetti dies at Rustichella.

Fresh or dried pasta, which is better? 

Frankly, I don’t know if this is a debate or not. If it is I’m sure it ranks low on the scale of disputes, somewhere far beneath the controversy over whether water should be served with or without ice. Still, it is a question that comes up — and almost always I find that folks assume fresh pasta is better. That if you had the time and wherewithal you should use fresh pasta over dried 100% of the time. Maybe that's because it’s more work to make (if you make the pasta at home). Maybe it’s because fresh pasta is more fragile, more perishable and therefore more precious. Maybe it’s because dried seems more industrial, more like a commodity and can sell for so little. 

Whatever the story behind the myth, it’s not true. Fresh pasta is not better than dried. It’s just different. There are many times when dried pasta is preferable. Use dried pasta when you want to enjoy noodles with a lot of texture and flavor; use fresh when you want a softer, subtler dish. 

Dried and fresh pasta are made very differently, hence the different results and different uses in the kitchen. Traditional dried pasta is made by extruding durum semolina dough through bronze dies. It’s dried at relatively low temperatures for a couple days. The bronze-die extrusion leaves the pasta with a rough hewn texture. You can feel it in your mouth and the sauce really grips to it. The slow drying ferments the flour a bit. It transforms the dough from tasting like raw flour to something more like bread. 

In contrast, fresh pasta is usually rolled and cut and there is no fermentation. The texture is much softer, smoother and the flavor is less intense, more like flour. 

It’s important to note when I talk about dried pasta I’m not talking about any old dried pasta. There are only a handful of companies that do dried pasta right. (My two favorites are Martelli and Rustichella.) Most dried pasta is industrially made with exasperating shortcuts that leave it tasting unexceptional. In particular, they employ hot, short drying times so there is no transformation of the dough’s flavor. It tastes like flour. Worse, it’s flour with a burnt edge to the flavor. The extra hot ovens singe the surface in a way Martelli and Rustichella’s do not. To see what I mean taste a piece of uncooked commercially made De Cecco pasta (one of the better industrial companies) and Martelli spaghetti next to each other. The flavor is remarkably different. 

At home I almost exclusively use dried pasta. The dishes I like to cook are robust like crisper box pasta and spaghetti with sardines, arugula and lemon. My regular favorite, which is too simple to even post as its own recipe, is Rustichella Fettucine with Il Mongetto’s plain tomato sauce with a tin of Ortiz's line caught tuna tipped in, oil and all.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Why don't companies like answering the phone?

This article describes some of the clever, confounding ways that tech companies make it increasingly difficult to reach them by phone

While those of us who have to use a phone to do work will suffer a migraine just browsing this article I think the folks who run most big time phone service departments feel the exact opposite. I bet they're almost jealous of techies' refusal to talk to their customers. They probably wish they could do the same. After all, while phone service departments are ostensibly in the business of taking care of people, everything in how they're run—from hiding phone numbers on websites to automated answers to making it impossible to reach a human being—makes me think they don't see any business value in it. To them the tech industry is essentially at the avant garde of their silent dream: to be virtually unavailable.

To be fair, they want to be unavailable when you have a problem. If you're placing an order that's a different story. They'll answer the phone—after you wait. Nearly every company with a call center puts you in a queue to wait before they answer. I never knew why. Until I had a call center.

When I started Zingerman's Mail Order we had two ten dollar phones and an answering machine. When the phone rang we answered it. We kept the second line free so if we were busy the call would "hunt" to the second line and go to voice mail—I mean the answering machine. Voice mail came later.

We knew we weren't doing right by our customers. They couldn't wait on hold for us to answer. If we were on the other line or out getting a coffee they had to leave a message. Then they had to wait till we called them back. When we could finally afford it we "upgraded," as they say. We got a phone system. It could allow people to wait. Unfortunately, you had to wait whether you wanted to or not.

With the new system, when the phone rang my recorded message answered it. Even if there were three people twiddling their thumbs waiting to answer phones the recording answered first. If you knew your way through the maze you could press 2 to bypass the message and get your call answered. But most people didn't. They waited. At a minimum they waited 25 seconds through my welcome message and the list of options before the system let the phone ring to reach a human.

After we bought this "upgrade" we asked if there was some way to bypass the queue. We asked, "Can't we just have our crew answer the phone if they're free and only use the queue when we're all busy?" The first answer we got was, "No one does that." After being persistent the answer we got was, "No, you can't." There are often questions you wish you asked before you signed a check.

Phone systems are usually sold under contract. As soon as ours was up we went looking for a replacement. We got it about a year ago. We asked the same question. "Can't we just have people answer the phone if they're free and only use the queue when we're all busy?"The first answer we got was, "No one does that." But to their credit they did their homework and came back and said, "Yes, you can." So we bought it.

We started the process of figuring how to get rid of the queue in March. It took five months. We launched last week. Now when the phone rings we answer it. Most of the time. If everyone is on the phone the call goes to the queue. Sometime during the first day I check how often that happened. We had eighteen calls at that point. Two went to the queue. Nearly 90% were answered on the first ring. Now, it's worth noting we get a couple of hundred thousand phone calls a year. If we can keep that percentage up it means, in the next twelve months, at 25 seconds a pop, we'll collectively save the human race fourteen hundred hours of waiting. 

Here's to small steps backwards.

Big hat tip goes to Jackie and Joe and everyone else who helped make this happen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Potato Salad Nicoise

Basically, instead of tinned tuna I used tinned mackerel. It makes a lighter dish that's slightly less sweet. Then other changes appeared.

This Nicoise salad is courtesy my usual style of random crisper box cooking, what my daughter has affectionately dubbed "chickpeas and groceries." The Nicoise elements are potatoes, green beans, hard boiled egg, tinned fish. To that I slipped in sliced radishes, parsley, capers and a couple anchovies. Black pepper, salt and some olive oil, too. No olives, no lettuce. And I mix it all in a jumbled mess which makes it more like a potato salad Nicoise, not the picture-perfect composed salad you usually see.

Nicoise salads — like most salads — are trickier than they seem. Besides starting with good ingredients there are a few techniques that keep it away from bland-dom.

Potatoes: cook them whole, in their jackets, in very salty water. Cool them in the water, then undress them. Slip the peel off with your fingers or the edge of a paring knife. Chop into odd sized chunks.

Tinned fish: dump in the whole tin, olive oil and all. Don't skimp on the quality of the fish. This is one place you'll really taste the difference.

Green beans: barely blanch in very salty water, then chill quickly in a bowl of ice water. Dry them off.

Egg: cook it on the softer side of hard, then chop it to bits so it emulsifies a bit with the olive oil.

Olive oil: add a lot of a tasty one. This one is from Nice if that helps.

Mix: with your hands. This is my advice on mixing nearly every salad. Hand mixing lets you know when all the parts are coated. It gets the salad to be dressed more homogenously. When it's ready to eat it's not pretty (like the picture above), but it's very tasty:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Recent Reading, Amazon.com edition

Order it online today, get it today, Amazon is working on nearly instant delivery

Adidas won't sell on Amazon. "For many manufacturers, it's simply too big to ignore, but they also view it as one of the chief culprits in driving down prices." The question: is this good or bad for people who buy shoes?

Amazon's e-books aren't killing reading. Quite the contrary.