I have recently taken up reading a book on the subject of what really gets our human gustatory engines humming. Ostensibly, this book is about processed food, and how the sugar, salt, and fat therein are calibrated by legions of food scientists to hit our deepest urges so we just want more and more, or at least that seems to be the trend. Fair enough. I have been known to mow down on a salty delicacy fished from the deepest recesses of a bag that crinkles just so as my fingers desperately search for that last little chip (and I must wonder if they engineer the crinkle of the bag as carefully as the food, because it is absolutely part of the sensory experience.). But this isn’t about the engineering of the chip or the bag. This is about a paragraph that basically debunked the long-held belief I have had that the tongue has different “taste zones.” Apparently, it really doesn’t. Apparently even the idea behind it was a misinterpretation. If you really want to read this paragraph, read the book and we’ll discuss. The thing that particularly caught my eye was where he talked about microvilli, tiny little hairs on each little bump on the tongue and how they were ultimately the taste receptors. And of course I tiptoed through the Wikipedia entries, and couldn’t find the word ‘microvilli’ in the taste bud entry, but plenty of info that ultimately led me to discover the term “gustatory hair,” but then I decided that was a far ickier headline than ‘microvilli’, since that word lacks association with hairs in food. And so here we are.
“Wait…” you might ask. “You were going somewhere with this? Seriously?” I am, dear reader, I am. You see, I am going to pull together sugar, salt, fat, sweet, salty, bitter, maybe even a hit of umami, if I really grasped what that meant (technically there is a description involving an aftertaste leaving a ‘furry taste’ on the roof of the mouth, but much like the gustatory hair of earlier, we are going to walk away from that for the moment so we don’t foment further negative associations.) So I give you… coy creamy cheese tortellini cooked to an al dente finish, spicy, salty Italian sausage, seductively earthy mushrooms, onions made sweet by low heat slowly coaxing forth the sugars nesting deep within their cells, a sharp bite of Parmesan, a subtle acid hit of lemon and crossing into a new realm for me, the vegetal bitterness of broccoli rabe. (For those who have known me my whole life, they know broccoli and most cruciferous vegetables are my mortal enemy, but I accidentally ate some broccoli rabe one day at a restaurant and decided I should be a little more flexible.)
And honestly… that’s actually about it. There are no fancy reductions, no little tricks, just simple ingredients combined simply and quickly. I’m sure proper chefs would have heart attacks at this, but sometimes… I only want to wash two pans. No hours of prep, just clean, fresh flavors, all mingling in a plate, each bite bringing different sensations to the table, each tickling the various taste receptors, tricking the brain into happy oblivion in a more satisfying manner than any crunchy item hatched from the labs of a major food magnate.
Tortellini for All the Microvilli
Serves 4 hungry people, 6 people who have other stuff to eat as well.
1 lb. frozen cheese tortellini
1 lb. spicy Italian sausage (I get mine from Whole Foods, that makes a wickedly good one, and it’s pretty spicy… you can try sweet, but it just won’t be the same. Or you can go veggie and not use it at all)
1 lb. cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
1/2 Vidalia or medium sweet onion, thinly wedged
1 bunch broccoli rabe, washed and roughly chopped
a lemon, halved
Parmesan for grating
Bring several quarts of water, salted, to a boil for the tortellini. While the water is boiling, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add in the onions and sprinkle with a generous pinch salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the onions have gotten all soft and luscious. Add in the sausage, breaking it up as much as you can while you cook it. When the sausage is almost fully cooked, add in the mushrooms. Keep stirring the whole time. Somewhere in here I am guessing your pasta water has come to a boil. Start cooking it. Keep an eye on it, since frozen pasta cooks very differently than the dried. Read the instructions on the package, since they might vary from brand to brand. You want it to be al dente. Do NOT drain fully when you are done. Trust me. Once the mushrooms look all deliciously moist and dark, taste one to test it and make sure it is fully cooked, then add in the broccoli rabe. Keep stirring until the broccoli rabe turns a vivid green. Squeeze the half a lemon over (I have decided that lemons are the most valuable thing in the world, and now add them and their brilliant acid hit to almost everything I make now) and cook for 30 more seconds. Taste again, and salt and pepper to taste. Now drain almost all of the pasta. Keep some of the water back, about 1/2 cup or so. Toss the pasta and the little bit of pasta water into the skillet, turn the heat up to high and toss everything together, cooking just until most of the pasta water has disappeared. Serve with some freshly grated Parmesan and more freshly ground black pepper on top. And eat it slowly. Your taste buds will thank you.