Thurston column: Penne sans vodka

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 29, 2008

By Chuck Thurston
For the Salisbury Post
At the supermarket one day, my wife picked up a box of our favorite crackers. “Oh look,” she said ó “They have taken the trans fat out of these!”
This was good news. We have been checking product nutrition labels for some time, and manufacturers are responding to the fact that we seniors are concerned about the fat, sodium and cholesterol we are putting in our systems. Every now and then we find that an old favorite has suddenly become healthier! And in almost every case, we haven’t missed the things they took out!
We recently discussed this trend with friends over a pizza we had just ordered. We jokingly discussed what could be left off that would make it healthier and still leave it as an identifiable pizza. Cheese and tomatoes seemed to be givens, but we got various votes to sacrifice pepperoni, salami and ground beef.
How low could we go?
It got us thinking. How many of the things we eat would be better for us if it weren’t for the “ala’s”, “and’s” and “with’s” that we add to them? We composed a simple test. Look at the list below and pick the part of the food item that is good for you, and the part that will make your doctor frown.
Broccoli and cheese sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, fish and chips, strawberry shortcake, shrimp alfredo, chicken fricassee, crab croquettes.
The answers:
Good for you ó broccoli, potatoes, fish, strawberries, shrimp, chicken, crab.
Doctor will frown ó cheese sauce, gravy, chips, shortcake, alfredo, fricassee, croquettes.
We saw a pattern here. In almost all cases, the good part is named first. Limit yourself to this part of the recipe, and you will be OK. A warning, though: this method isn’t fool-proof. Cooks are clever ó some descriptions are reversed ó consider ham hocks and lima beans! On the other hand, you might benefit from an accidental omission.
Consider this:
A few weeks ago we had dinner at the home of friends. As we were relaxing afterward with coffee, we heard our lovely hostess utter a piteous “Oh no!” from the kitchen.
Before we could rouse from our chairs and rush to her aid, she rejoined us, holding a measuring cup of clear liquid and told us that her meal had been a bit fraudulent.
“We were supposed to be having ‘Penne ala Vodka,’ ” she said. “I am afraid I forgot to put it in. What you just ate was ‘Penne sans Vodka.’ ”
Well, it was an easy mistake to make. She had carefully measured out the booze and set it aside, to add at the appropriate time, but overlooked it at the critical moment. I was completely happy with what I had been served and told her so. The rest nodded in agreement.
I thought about this experience a lot. Shortly afterward, my wife was contemplating our evening menu and said, “How would you like some macaroni and … ”
“Whoa there!” I stopped her in mid-sentence. “Just the macaroni, if you please … forget about the … um … other stuff.”
“Hmm … that would be pretty bland, but if you insist, I was also thinking of spinach and salmon patties.”
“Spinach what?” I asked.
“Just spinach! You know, the leafy green stuff!”
I sensed that she was becoming a bit irritated as I did a quick mental assessment of salmon patties. They were really salmon … croquettes! A word on my no-no list! I gently told her so, and she walked away in a huff.
She was right.
My dinner was bland. She had her macaroni and um … stuff, with a delicious looking croquette. I took my little elbows plain with canned salmon. The spinach was lovely ó and I am a better man for my self-control … I think.
Chuck Thurston is retired and lives in Kannapolis. His e-mail address is