Having made your pasta, either by hand or by machine, you are aglow with self righteous satisfaction. I salute you.
But if you decide never to make pasta, or if you decide that you’d like to use factory made pasta shapes, should you hang your head in shame? Certainly not.
There are factories that make superb dry pasta - La Molisana, Gragnano, Maestri, Pasta de Cecco, Garofalo and the expensive Martelli – to name just half a dozen that spring to mind. In Adelaide, I urge you to try L’Abruzzese artisan pasta – locally made in Glynde.
So, factory made pasta is not a poor relative of freshly made pasta – it’s different in taste, texture and impact, but it acquits itself nicely with its own class of sauces.
As I explained in a previous post on pasta there are three categories of pasta dishes – pasta asciutta, pasta in brodo and pasta al forno.
Pasta asciutta, literally 'dry pasta', is pasta of various shapes, which is boiled in water and eaten with a sauce; the second is generally the small sort that goes into a broth. Pasta al forno is mostly a grander affair – cooked pasta, dressed in sauce and garnished variously with tiny meatballs and other meats, boiled eggs, cheeses and baked. It ranges from lasagna to grand pies with rich, semi sweet pastries - recipes that date back to the middle ages. It is a special occasion pasta, a ‘Sunday best’ – it is rich and complicated in its largesse. Think of the fabulous pasta in pastry in that wonderful film, ‘The Big Night’ or in the banquet scene of ‘The Leopard’.
Photo Credit: Italian Masterchef. I will not give you a recipe, because my good friend Cath Kerry intends to devote a post to this glorious richness in her blog, "It's not the last supper" . We wait with bated breath. In this and the next post, I will give you a couple of recipes for each category.
But first to tackle questions I am frequently asked:
How much dry pasta to allow per person: check
50-80 g for pasta in brodo
120-150 g for pasta asciutta
80 g for pasta al forno
How to boil pasta - indulge me, please. I see so many basic errors in my travels.
For a household dinner, allow 1 litre of water per 100 g pasta. Obviously, for a big, catering affair use your discretion. ‘Abundant boiling water’ is the phrase usually employed to indicate that the pasta should be freely moving about in the pot without fear of sticking.
Bring the ‘abundant’ water to the boil and when it is at a rolling boil, add just under 1 tablespoon of coarse salt/per litre. When it comes back to the boil, add the pasta all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon. Leave the lid off.
The salt is important for three reasons: the first is an observable fact – the water temperature will drop immediately and it will go off the boil, and when it comes back to the boil, it is hotter than normal boiling water, meaning that our pasta is not languishing in water any longer than is necessary.
Secondly, I have no scientific reason for this, but I find that pasta holds its shape better when cooked in salted, boiling water.
Three, the salt adds flavour.
Check the packet for cooking times which will vary with the shape of the pasta, whether it has eggs in it, and the manufacturer. Start tasting 2 minutes before the packet states.
You all know what ‘al dente’ means – just remember in Italy, pasta is truly served ‘al dente’. In Australia I find we prefer our pasta cooked just a tad longer. (I remember losing points at catering college many, many years ago because I served my pasta ‘raw’ – humiliation overlaid with indignation – I have never forgotten my sense of impotent rage.)
How much oil for each litre of water to boil pasta?
Exactly none. If you have ‘abundant', salted water there is simply no need for oil. Moreover, the oily water puts a slippery finish on the pasta shapes and thus makes the sauce difficult to cling to the surface. The only time I would sanction the use of oil in the boiling water is when I blanch sheets of pasta for lasagna – then, because I am reusing the water time and again, the starch makes sticking likely.
What is pasta water/pasta stock?
When you cook pasta, hold back a ladle or two of the boiling water to moisten the sauce. The starch in the water contributes to the sauce and seems to make it quite creamy.
When NOT to offer grated parmesan/pecorino/romano
There are rules. Not explicit but rules nonetheless. It is like a mason’s handshake – you are ‘conoscenti’ or you are not.
These are some instances when NOT to offer grated cheese – feel free to add more:
For any alio e olio sauce and its derivatives (see below)
With fish based sauces – including frutta di mare
Any sauce that has lemon or lemon zest in it.
Instead of grated cheese:
Coarse breadcrumbs lightly fried in oil, mixed with chopped parsley, sometimes also with garlic and/or chilli. I see this topping sometimes referred to as "poor man's parmesan". No way. It adds texture and piquancy.
Gremolata – usually served with sticky osso bucco. I like a fishy sauce topped with it.
To ring changes for a tomato based sauce, think of mascarpone, goat cheese, bufala, grated salted ricotta.
When to eat pasta:
I have dealt with this before in a previous pasta post – as a first course, followed by a light second course. Not on a buffet. Not with salad, ever. (Madonna!)
How to serve the sauce:
Think of pasta sauce as a condiment or dressing. Toss the sauce through the pasta – for aesthetic reasons you may want to pop a spoonful of sauce on top as well. For an Italian, the pasta is always the hero - the sauce, even rich rabbit or duck ragu' enhances it. Often the meat or fish used to make the ragu' is served as the second course. So, Italians do eat spaghetti and meatballs, but they eat the pasta and sauce first, then the meatballs as a second course with contorni - green beans or even a salad.
Stay tuned for the recipes.