iving in Rome, I think a lot about water. Mankind cannot survive with water and salt. But ah, the waters of this city! Water in every neighborhood, pouring from fountains, spouting from turtles, dolphins, satyrs, any orifice can send a stream of lovely, clear water into the pools below or refresh myriad inhabitants and visitors.
In the Girl Scouts I learned to conserve water on camping trips by using only one tablespoon of our precious stash to brush my teeth. I sucked on a smooth stone to quench thirst and went several days without a bath, using sand as a cleanser both on my skin and on cooking pots blackened by outdoor fires.
But few of us have the shortage of water that the rest of the world lives with daily. Make that clean water, since most of the world’s water supplies are tainted with myriad diseases, sewage, or run-off from dangerous waste areas and would never stand up to the quality of water we so casually take for granted. Most people could sing all of “Aida” in the time they take for a shower (the truth is it’s not good to get that clean unless you want wrinkles at 30.)
I’ve boiled pasta and vegetables for years without really thinking that the barely-used water I so blithely poured down the drain could have been saved for soups, cooking vegetables, or simply watering the garden.
I’m ashamed to say that for years none of this even dawned on me. But one has to start somewhere.
I recently bought a two-liter container and began saving water from most vegetables. True, the fairly strong water from cauliflower or broccoli has its place only in certain soups and for reuse with the same vegetables, but I promise you that using second-hand water will improve the taste.
Pasta water can help make wonderful pizza and bread. I tend to cut the amount of salt in the recipe, since I salt pasta water liberally. I’ve used pasta water (with vegetables added) to braise meat, fish or chicken. It can add a new dimension to cassoulet and great Roman dishes such as coda alla vaccinara or stracotto.
Even the classic abbacchio al forno won’t suffer from a splash of pasta water mixed with a little white wine, which you can then use to make juice for the finished product.
I also use my vegetable or pasta water when I steam shrimp, lobster, crayfish, or mussels. For a shrimp with a creole taste, for example, I add chopped onion, a squeeze of lemon and a tiny piece of bay leaf. I’ve found that a chicken cube stirred into leftover pasta water makes a more substantial quick broth than plain water from the tap.
Water from green beans, peas, steamed carrots, steamed fennel, or boiled potatoes is the perfect bath for a nice little chicken or the veal for vitello tonnato. It creates a broth with subtle flavors and a bit more substance than normal broth.
Such is my guilt about throwing out water that given the chance I might even bathe in pasta water, much as our grandmothers dipped in cornstarch and bath salts to keep their skin smooth and satiny. But it hasn’t quite come to that, yet.
We don’t use our bath water several times over — as I am sure some families do who pay through the nose just to have it. Instead, we in Rome luxuriate. We do because we can.
But if we don’t think to conserve this magical liquid, we are not going to be worth our salt.