Life in the left lane

24 Oct

Note: I’ll be honest. These past months have taken a toll on my interest in cooking and writing. Hopefully it’s a temporary setback and we’ll return to our usual topics shortly. 

I begin most every morning with a briskish five- or six-mile walk. There are few sidewalks on my route and so you will mostly find me farthest to my left, approaching oncoming vehicles.

This may be the proper place for a person on foot to travel, but it is not always a safe one. Too many motorists drive distractedly. A surprising number of others resent sharing the road with pedestrians—and aren’t afraid to show it. 

I have been run off the road plenty, forced to leap into the brush or up onto a snowbank, even pinned against a solid stone wall. On a couple of occasions I have been deliberately aimed at. That’s right, aimed at. By an actual human, operating a few thousand-pound vehicle that could end me.

Thing is, the left side of the universe has always been a comfortable place for me. As a boy and then a young man I spent all my summers in left field on the baseball diamond and third base on the softball field. I’ve spent decades probing the farthest left frequencies of the FM radio dial. And My Sainted Mother, a righty, used her left hand exclusively to make her meatballs.

I used to think that a lifelong familiarity with things left kept me on my toes and therefore safe. Not anymore. Leaning even slightly leftward of farthest right puts you square on the third rail of life in 2020 America. 

None of us is safe.

A couple of months ago I made the mistake of innocently pointing out, in a social media setting, that I found the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to be a decent sort of fellow. And that is all that I pointed out about him. 

“Fuck your feelings,” came a particularly brutal response. And from a person that I actually know a little bit. Like, in the flesh.

It’s dismaying that such an innocuous comment about a lifelong and serious-minded public servant could unleash such fury. The candidate that I referred to isn’t even a lefty, by the way; he’s a centrist. A lot of moderate Republicans are in his corner. A lot of left-leaning Democrats are not.

Besides, all I said was that he seemed like an okay guy.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that a “friend” or a “follower” has lashed out with such vitriol over, well, not so much. 

Once I was called a “scumbag liberal asshole” for “spreading FAKE NEWS to make our GREATEST PRESIDENT EVER look bad.” This for having the gaul to implore my fellow citizens, in the very early days of the coronavirus pandemic, to “please be vigilant and stay safe out there, people.” 

Another time it was suggested that I move to “some sociallist (sic) shithole country” where people of my ilk “belong.” Though, this person added with apparent enthusiasm, “HELL would be better because I wish all you DEMONCRATS would  just DIE OF CANCER already.”

So there. 

(For the record, I am not now nor have I been a member of the “DEMONCRAT” party, nor the Democrat one, but I take my “friend’s” point.)

It’s the viciousness that’s so disheartening, the blind rage, the complete absence of kindness and respect. We’re talking about a national virus here, a virus that scares me a lot more than COVID-19.

In eleven days we will have an election. The polls indicate that a change in leadership may be coming.

I’m good with that. Very good, in fact.

But then what? 

My guess is that the lane that I’m traveling on becomes more, not less, perilous. 

Never in my life have I wanted more to be wrong.

Tom really was terrific

3 Sep

Tonight we received word that New York Mets legend Tom Seaver died at the age of 75. As a remembrance I’m reprinting the following article, one that I’d written for another website before Seaver’s passing.

“They were both Mets fans, and the hopelessness of that passion created a bond between them.” —Paul Auster

On October 17th, 1986, sometime in the early afternoon Rome time, I was queued up at the Alitalia check-in at Fiumicino Airport. Beside me was my newish wife Joan, in front of me a stocky man wearing a bright blue hoodie and jittering in a highly agitated state.

“Let’s hang back a couple steps,” I whispered into my wife’s ear. “Give that guy a little space.”

I do not recall the exact circumstances of the airport’s delays that day, only that they were many. This seemed a minor inconvenience to my wife and me, as neither of us was in a hurry to leave Italy and fly back home to New York. 

Not so for our hoodied friend. Anxious does not begin to describe the man’s position on catching the next flight to JFK.

“C’mon man, let’s get going,” he pleaded to no one in particular. “If I don’t get to see my Mets in the World Series tomorrow I’m gonna kill somebody.”

This is the moment that my opinion of our animated friend changed entirely.

“Excuse me,” I said, moving closer. “Did you just say the Mets are in the Series?”

As soon as he turned I had my answer. On the front of his blue hoodie was the very distinct and very orange Mets logo.

“Are you kidding me?” cried Hoodie. “Them and Boston, yeah. I’m from Jersey. Paterson. You?”

Never have I wanted so desperately to lie about my residence, which was far closer to the Mets’ home field than Hoodie’s. Worse, the Mets were my father’s, my brothers’ and therefore my team. Forever. And always. Their 1969 World Series championship—a bona fide Act of God “miracle”—ranks among the most treasured memories of all my years.

Now I would have to explain to a total stranger how, for the recent few years, baseball had occupied not a single square yard in the fabric of my life. Nearly six months into an NL championship season and I was utterly clueless about my team’s accomplishments!

“Brooklyn,” I answered sheepishly—and softly enough so that nobody but I could hear.

“Sorry, say again,” said Hoodie, moving closer. “Didn’t catch that.”

Inches now separated the man and me. I was trapped. My baseball demons had traveled across an ocean in order to torment me. Their chosen human vessel? An overweight, balding, hoodied New York Mets fan from Paterson, New Jersey.

What fresh hell is this?

“Brooklyn,” I repeated loudly and properly this time. “Born and raised.”

Hoodie’s eyes opened wider than a 747 but before he could scold me I spoke up.

“I know, I know. Just that it’s been a while since I followed the game. Once they dealt Seaver in ’77…”

This evoked an appropriate response, if you are familiar with New York Mets baseball, that is. 

“Darkest day ever!” Hoodie yelled, startling an elderly Italian couple ahead of him in line. “Seaver was God, the best. They should’ve executed the scumbag that traded him. Firing squad. Gas chamber. No, guillotine. Bring me the head of M. Donald Grant!” 

It was Grant, the team’s then chairman, who had sent George Thomas Seaver packing back in 1977, just 10 years into a Hall of Fame career that lasted twice that long. Seaver was, and is, the greatest pitcher in Mets history; he isn’t still called The Franchise for nothing. Grant’s shocking decision to trade him sent shockwaves not just through New York’s five boroughs and the tri-state region, but through all of Major League Baseball. It remains the worst move ever made by a team that to this day is best known for its ability to make all conceivable kinds of worst moves ever. 

Only Mets fans of a certain age, like Hoodie and me, have suffered through ALL of the team’s many indignities. We are brothers in this way. Lifelong, I suspect. 

Hoodie’s eyes went down to my shoes and then slowly worked their way up my body until we were again eye to eye.

“Still, no excuse for not even knowing they made it to the Series. Seriously, man, Seriously.”

My new friend was right, of course. I had been wrong on so many levels and told him so. More than a few times, as it happens, what with the hours it took for our flight to make it out of Rome. Before we said goodbye, somewhere around Customs at JFK, Hoodie grabbed me by the shoulders with both of his impressive hands.

“The past is the past, so get over it,” he told me. “Come home, brother. Just come home.”

I am not in the practice of taking advice from strangers, certainly not agitated ones who wear logoed MLB merch when traveling abroad, but in this case I decided to make an exception. Between October 18th and 27th, 1986, the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox played a full best-of-seven series. I watched nearly every inning of every game, and when the last out was recorded—a strikeout in the top of the ninth at Shea Stadium—my Mets had won their second (and last, to this date) World Series. 

As it happens Tom Seaver wore a Red Sox uniform that year, his last as a professional baseball player. A knee injury prevented the 42-year-old from pitching against the team that he had led to the 1969 World Series that I had watched with my father and my brothers. 

I am forever grateful that Seaver did not end his career by taking the mound that October.

I could not—and would not—have rooted against him.

Even Hoodie would have to back me up on this.

Into the woods

20 Aug


I don’t go into the woods much anymore. Not since we lost Otis seven years ago.

It’s too quiet out there. Memories of the two of us trekking through the trails and brush together, day after day after day after day, for a dozen years, lurk behind every oak and maple, poplar and hemlock, like it was Tuesday.

I am not as strong as it sometimes appears.

A few days ago I found myself in the woods just to the north of our house. A project that I was working on required an amount of natural stone; collecting them is easy because they are more plentiful around here than the trees.

After a couple of hours of scavenging I’d collected enough stones to complete my project and started back to the house with the last of them. The sun was shining brightly and for an instant I spied a brief but colorful reflection at the base of a giant oak.

It never occurred to me that the shining purple and blue light might be my old friend.

Rambunctious may begin to describe Otis’s spirit but that’s all it does. Don’t worry, I’m not a man who forces others to suffer through “the cute.” Let’s just say that I loved my constant companion deeply and leave it at that, shall we.

As I bent down to inspect the shiny objects the few stones that I was carrying slid out of my hands and onto the ground. I found myself grabbing the oak and trying to catch my breath.

Otis never cared much for collars and leashes. Over his all too brief time with us we replaced several of both. The purple and blue tags shining in the sunlight that day were the very first ones that he wore, very reluctantly, as a pup.

After a good cry I scooped up the tags and left the last few stones behind. My wife Joan was having a pretty bad day and so I decided to wait a bit before showing them to her. When Otis died, you see, a very important part of her died too.

Last evening, after finishing the stonework, an outdoor fire pit that Joan had been wanting me to build for some time, I brought out Otis’s tags. Turns out she had already discovered them hidden behind the garden tools that I thought she never paid any attention to.

And, like me, couldn’t quite find the right moment to mention it.

My go-to sauteed escarole

17 Aug


I had a nice crop of escarole in the garden this year. And no matter how hard I try to get creative with using it I always come back to this old favorite.


In a large pan saute four or five garlic cloves, as many anchovy fillets, some hot pepper and a handful of pine nuts in olive oil, until the garlic has softened.


This is escarole that was first chopped and blanched for around five minutes, then drained very well. As I mentioned, it’s from my garden, but I’d say it’s the equivalent of two bunches that you’d find in the supermarket. Add the blanched escarole and a little stock (I used chicken stock) and cook until the escarole is completely tender.


It’s my favorite vegetable side dish.

Nothing even comes close.

Pickled garlic scapes

11 Jul


It’s getting a little late in the season to be finding garlic scapes and so I’ll be quick and simply pass along a recipe that I’ve been experimenting with the past week or so.

If you enjoy a strong taste of vinegar then follow the instructions to the letter and you won’t be disappointed.

However, if you are like me and prefer a less pronounced vinegar taste, then I suggest using a 50/50 mix of vinegar and water (as suggested in the notes of the original recipe).

I also added some hot pepper to half the jars that I prepared. My instinct would be to add the pepper to all of the jars, but a certain housemate of mine often frowns upon this preference and with age I have learned to compromise.

Good luck.

ZOLLE SOTT’OLIO (Pickled Garlic Scapes)

Recipe by Domenica Marchetti

Makes 2 pints

1 pound garlic scapes
2 cups white wine vinegar (see NOTES)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil

Have on hand 4 sterilized half-pint jars (or 2 pint-size jars) and their lids (see NOTES).

Cut the scapes into 1 1/2- to 2-inch lengths, removing any tought parts at the bottom and the thinnest part above the small bulbous tip.

In a saucepan large enough to hold all the scapes, bring the vinegar to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the salt and let it dissolve. Add the scapes to the pot and cover. Return the vinegar to a boil and boil, stirring once or twice, until the scapes have lost their bright green color and are just tender, 4 to 5 minutes.

Drain the scapes in a colander set in the sink. Spread on a clean kitchen towel and let dry for 1 hour. Shuffle them around once or twice during this time to make sure they dry on all sides.

Pack the scapes into the jars, leaving 1 inch head space. Pour enough olive oil into the jars to cover the scapes completely. Use a bubble remover or a clean chopstick to dislodge any air bubbles and press down on the scapes to submerge them.

Screw the lids on tightly and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours. Let the scapes cure in the refrigerator for 1 week before using, then store them in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. To serve, remove from the jar only as much as you plan to use and let it come to room temperature. Top off the jar with more oil as necessary to keep the remaining scapes submerged.

These pickles have a pronounced vinegar flavor. If you want to soften the flavor, substitute up to 1 cup water for up to 1 cup of the vinegar ~ no more, as you do not want to dilute the preserving ability of the vinegar. You can also add a little sugar to the brine, if you like.

These pickles do not call for sealing in a water bath; they are stored in the refrigerator. However, to minimize the growth of mold or other micro-organisms, I prefer to sterilize the jars and lids. To sterilize jars, wash them with soapy water, rinse, and then boil in a water bath for 10 minutes; or wash in soapy water, rinse, and heat in a 285 F oven for 30 minutes. Wash the lids in hot soapy water, rinse, submerge in simmering water for a few minutes.

Puttanesca sauce

12 May


First things first.

No, it is not a fact that puttanesca sauce was invented by the puttana who earned their livelihoods in Italy’s brothels around World War II. It’s possible, I suppose. But, then, what isn’t?

Except for its geographic lineage, that being Italy, the southern part most probably, nobody really knows the true origin of the sauce. Believe me, I’ve looked and read and asked around. There are theories, several of them, but that’s all they are.

Titillating as it may be the most widely accepted brothel theory is, at best, weak.

This marks the (merciful) end of our impossible history lesson of the puttanesca.

Besides, do you really care who first threw together the most intensely flavored quick sauce known to humankind?

I’m content being in the dark and just enjoying the sauce. Wherever it came from.


A puttanesca begins, as so many good things do, with plenty of olive oil, garlic, anchovy and some hot pepper. Saute for a couple minutes until the garlic has softened.


Add a 28- to 35-oz. can of tomatoes, 3/4 cups of pitted and halved olives (Gaeta olives are traditional but Kalamatas are easier for me to source and so that’s what is used here), two or three tablespoons of rinsed capers, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for as little as 20 minutes, or up to half an hour, and you are pretty much all done.


Though tossing in a handful of chopped parsley before serving would not be such a terrible idea.


It took way less time to cook, eat and clean up after this puttanesca than it did trying to figure out whose bright idea the whole thing was in the first place.

Puttanesca Sauce

4 tablespoons or so of olive oil
3 to 4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 dried hot pepper, crushed
4 anchovy fillets

2 to 3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
3/4 cup pitted Gaeta or Kalamata olives, halved
1 28-oz. to 35-oz. can of good-quality tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan saute the olive oil, garlic, hot pepper and anchovies for around two  minutes.
Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, salt and pepper, stir and allow to simmer at medium heat for 20-30 minutes.

Kalamata olive bread

3 May


I promise not to bore you. Fact, let me get straight to the point and move along. This is basically round two of the bread-making exercise that I posted here a few weeks back. Here is the link to that recipe, along with full instructions.

All I have done is turn the original Jim Lahey recipe into an olive bread. A really good olive bread, too.

Below is the original recipe, with olives added (in bold red lettering) at the point where they should be mixed into the dough. Again, the original link that I mentioned above offers step-by-step instruction, so refer to that and then simply add the olives.

That’s about it.

Good luck.





3 cups (400 grams) bread flour

1 1/4 teaspoons (8 grams) table salt

1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) instant or other active dry yeast

1 1/3 cups (300 grams) cool water (55 to 65 degrees F)

1 cup loosely chopped Kalamata olives (drained of brine)

Wheat bran, cornmeal, or additional flour, for dusting


A 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-quart heavy pot


1. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and yeast. Add the water AND OLIVES, using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Make sure it’s really sticky to the touch; if it’s not, mix in another tablespoon or two of water. Cover the bowl with a plate, tea towel, or plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature (about 72 degrees F), out of direct sunlight, until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size. This will take a minimum of 12 hours and (my preference) up to 18 hours. This slow rise—fermentation—is the key to flavor.

2. When the first fermentation is complete, generously dust a work surface (a wooden or plastic cutting board is fine) with flour. Use a bowl scraper or rubber spatula to scrape the dough onto the board in one piece. When you begin to pull the dough away from the bowl, it will cling in long, thin strands (this is the developed gluten), and it will be quite loose and sticky—do not add more flour. Use lightly floured hands or a bowl scraper or spatula to lift the edges of the dough in toward the center. Nudge and tuck in the edges of the dough to make it round.

3. Place a cotton or linen tea towel (not terry cloth, which tends to stick and may leave lint in the dough) or a large cloth napkin on your work surface and generously dust the cloth with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Use your hands or a bowl scraper or wooden spatula to gently lift the dough onto the towel, so it is seam side down. If the dough is tacky, dust the top lightly with wheat bran, cornmeal, or flour. Fold the ends of the towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, making an indentation about 1/4 inch deep, it should hold the impression. If it doesn’t, let it rise for another 15 minutes.

4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475 degrees F, with a rack in the lower third position, and place a covered 4 1/2–5 1/2 quart heavy pot in the center of the rack.

5. Using pot holders, carefully remove the preheated pot from the oven and uncover it. Unfold the tea towel, lightly dust the dough with flour or bran, lift up the dough, either on the towel or in your hand, and quickly but gently invert it into the pot, seam side up. (Use caution—the pot will be very hot.) Cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut color but not burnt, 15 to 30 minutes more. Use a heatproof spatula or pot holders to carefully lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool thoroughly. Don’t slice or tear into it until it has cooled, which usually takes at least an hour.

Ricotta orange cookies

1 May


This is gonna be a quickie.

See, I had a pound of fresh ricotta that needed to be used (yeah, I know, poor me!) and for some reason cookies came to mind. Don’t ask me why.

Anyhow, I searched around to get a general sense of proportions. Y’know, like how much flour would make sense for the amount of ricotta that I had on hand. Then I just kinda winged it.

Which is to say that I had no idea what I was doing. Not much of an idea anyway. And so should you decide to proceed with caution (or, gasp!, some personal knowledge of cookie baking), I will not be offended in the least.

Oh, the cookies turned out pretty well, I’d say. In no small part due to the orange that I decided to toss in late in the game.


Ricotta orange cookies

Makes around 4 dozen cookies


1 cup sugar

1 stick sweet butter, softened

1 pound ricotta, preferably fresh but not a deal breaker

Zest of one large orange (or two smaller ones)

1 tablespoon orange liqueur 

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Using a mixer beat together the sugar and butter until fluffy, around 5 minutes or so.

Add ricotta, orange zest, liqueur, vanilla and eggs; mix until thoroughly blended.

Add the flour, baking powder and salt; mix until a dough forms. (Add some milk if dough appears dry.)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a tablespoon (or your fingers, as I did) drop balls of dough around 2 inches apart. Bake for around 25 minutes or until the cookies are lightly browned.


My best manicotti recipe

25 Apr

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This all began, as so many good things do, with a call to Aunt Anna in Queens. It was Easter Sunday morning and she was in her kitchen preparing dinner. I was at home here in Maine.

“What are you cooking anyway?” I asked after we’d been chatting for quite some time. “You never mentioned.”

“Right now, my meatballs,” Anna said a bit distractedly. “The manicotti I made yesterday. I’m just taking them out of the refrigerator now.”

And for days and days these were the only words that I could hear. It had been a while since I’d made manicotti. It was time.

A quick text to my friends Laura and Bob netted a nice tin of fresh ricotta from the excellent Lioni Latticini in New Jersey—and I was off and running. Thanks to my aunt.


Thin crepes are the key to good manicotti, the thinner the better. That means the crepe mix has to be super light and so mixing it in a blender is best. (I’ve included the full list of ingredients at the end.) A super hot omelette pan doused in butter is the way to cook the crepes. I keep melted butter on the stovetop and apply it with a bristle brush before pouring out the mix for each crepe.


To make thin crepes you must barely cover the pan’s surface with the mixture. We’re not talking pancakes here, we’re talking just-thicker-than-paper type stuff. After the mix is set and drying flip it over with a spatula. If your pan is properly heated this won’t take long at all. (I pour the mix straight from the blender into the pan, by the way. That way I can add more milk to the mix as things thicken up, which they will.)


Here’s what the cooked side should look like. After flipping the crepe it only takes maybe 30 seconds to finish the other side.


This is about how thick you want your crepes to be. That’s a blue spatula I’m holding behind one of the crepes; you can see the color coming through, right? Nice and thin!


These crepes can be piled on top of each other without sticking. And if you aren’t making the manicotti right away the crepes can be refrigerated for a couple days. I refrigerated these overnight, wrapped in a roll using wax paper.


This is a pretty traditional filling, made with fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella and such (again, the full list of ingredients is below).


A simple fold from one side and then the other does the trick.


Lay a light dose of tomato sauce in a baking pan, then line the manicotti up, like so.


Add more sauce on top, cover in aluminum foil and throw into the oven, preheated to 375 degrees F. Remove the foil after 30 minutes and continue baking for another 15 minutes or so.


These manicotti are super light and very delicate—a real favorite around here, in fact.

The only thing that could have made them better this time would be to share them with the woman who put the idea into my head in the first place. Hopefully it won’t be too very long before we’re able to see each other again.

Manicotti Recipe

Makes at least two dozen manicotti, likely more than that

For the crepe

2 cups all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

2 1/2 cups milk to start (more as needed)

Pinch of salt

Mix ingredients together in a blender until fully incorporated. It should be the consistency of cream, NOT pancake batter. Add milk and blend more along the way if the mix thickens, which it will.

For the filling

2 lbs ricotta, preferably fresh

1 lb fresh mozzarella

1 egg

1/3 cup grated cheese (I use a blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino)

Pinch of nutmeg (though a couple pinches is better)

Salt and pepper to taste

Empty ricotta into a large bowl. Grate the mozzarella into the same bowl. Add all the other ingredients and mix thoroughly. If very stiff add a little milk to soften a bit.

It’s the salt, stupid

18 Apr

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I am about to boil some pasta.

Hell no, that is not a lot of salt.

Don’t ask me how much salt I use to boil pasta either, because I couldn’t tell you. If you’re really that curious then swing by the house one of these days and measure the capacity of the palm of my left hand. That’s my left hand right there, see, and some of the pile of salt it is holding has already escaped into the water.

Look, it makes no difference to me how much salt you use in your pasta water. As long as you are not serving the finished product to me. If you are serving it to me and you are not using a big old pile of salt in the water, then I am afraid we are going to have ourselves a problem.

I may eat your ill-prepared pasta, out of friendship, or good-mannered civility. But I am not going to like it.

Chill, all right. I’m only being straight with you.

Some years back I made the mistake of allowing a couple of dinner guests, aquaintances really, to observe while I prepared a simple pasta dish from start to finish. When it came time to getting the water going one of them actually gasped at seeing the amount of salt in my hand.

“Oh my God, you’re not actually going to use all that, are you?” she huffed. “Please, tell me you aren’t.”

I paused, but only for a nanosecond.

“Uh,” I said emptying my usual palm’s worth into the pot. “Of course I am.”

Since then, and to avoid such conflicts from recurring, I have made certain to pre-salt pasta water whenever unfamiliar guests will be arriving for dinner. I know, I know. It’s best to add the salt after the water has boiled, blah blah. But I am not a man who sweats that type of detail.

There are two reasons why pasta water must be well salted. The most obvious one is that this flavors the pasta itself, as it will absorb the salted water during boiling. This is crucially important because otherwise the pasta will be bland bland bland. I don’t care how much flavor your sauce has; it won’t do a thing to make the actual pasta taste good.

The other reason is that pasta water is an ingredient all by itself. More often than not some of it is added to the hot pan where a sauce and a pasta are mixed together in final preparation. If the water doesn’t have any flavor then all you’re doing by adding it is diluting the flavor of the entire dish.

And why would you want to do that?