How to Cook a Perfect Pasta

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Today 25th October is World Pasta Day. I want to celebrate it by publishing again an old post from my previous blog Lemons and Olives in 2010.

How to cook a Perfect Pasta

I still have in my mind my father’s expression in front of a bowl of pasta in a restaurant. ‘Hanno fatto la pasta molla’ (They overcooked the pasta) He said. That sealed the fate of the restaurant.

Nevertheless sometimes during our meals at home he would appreciate some rather slimy pasta that occasionally arrived at the table. A contradiction? Not really. I worked out that there was a reason for his inconsistency. He enjoyed a good bowl of pasta in a restaurant and expected to have it served “state of the art”. But when it came to sludgy spaghetti at home, his childhood memories resurfaced.

The reason for that is the quality of pasta depends also on its protein content, though he was not aware of this. Before WWII food in Italy was scarce and expensive and people were not really food conscious in the same way  as we are now, so his mother might have unwittingly bought low grade pasta.

Dry pasta is more traditional in the South of Italy, especially around the Naples region where there are still many very good makers. Until not long ago, and I remember it very well, pasta was sold by the weight and wrapped in beautiful blue paper. Every Salumeria (delicatessen) had its pasta counter where the “pastaio” would serve dozens of different  shapes of pasta.

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If you want to serve a state of the art pasta,  the first thing to do is to chose a good dry pasta and to check the protein percentage (pasta is not just carbs !!!) on the label. It must be high and not less then 12,5 %, the higher the better. 14 % is great. It means that the pasta was made with high quality flour. It also important that it is made with “semola di grano duro”, which means coarsely ground durum wheat. Good quality pasta is tastier and as the Italians say ‘tiene la cottura’, meaning that the pasta doesn’t turn into a gelatinous mass. Top quality pasta has the dough drawn, through a traditional bronze machine, that means that the pasta surface is rugged and when eaten has a texture. This information is also stated on the packaging (Trafilati al bronzo).

I have cooked a bowl of spaghetti and I have chosen the  Garofalo Brand.  Voiello and De Cecco are also excellent. The latter is also more widely available in supermarkets outside Italy.

To cook dried pasta perfectly you need a large saucepan  filled with water. Then you have to add salt. To give you an idea of a ratio  the proportion should roughly be:

4 cups (1 Litre) of water

1½  tablespoons (10 grams) of salt

4 ounces of pasta

Celia, my wife, was given by a friend, a shell that holds the correct amount of salt for our saucepan.

The exact  quantity of salt however depends on personal taste and how salty the sauce or the topping is. But also bear in mind that when you drain the pasta most of the salt will go down the drain with the water.

You need the following utensils:

A large saucepan

A wooden spoon or a large fork if you are doing spaghetti or similar long shaped pasta.

A kitchen timer

A colander

A good pasta must be ‘al dente’, (literally to the tooth), which means that it has to be slightly undercooked.

Read how many minutes cooking time the manufacturer recommends and subtract one minute because while you are draining the pasta and preparing it to be served it keeps cooking because it is still hot for a while. Later you will adjust the time according to your own taste.

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Now bring the salted water to a brisk boil, then add the pasta (be carefull not to splash hot water) and stir it for a few seconds in order to avoid it conglomerating.

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Repeat the operation every 2/3 minutes.

Towards the end of the prescribed cooking time, try the pasta to check that it is cooking properly and the suggested cooking time is right (which is not always the case ). The pasta should be soft with a slight bite to it .

When the timer rings or you think the pasta is cooked take the saucepan off the stove and drain the pasta with the colander in the sink, making sure that you are not scalding yourself!

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Pour the drained pasta in a serving bowl and add immediately the sauce or topping that you have prepared separately. Mix gently. The reason you need to do it sooner more then later is that pasta without a lubricant tends to glue into a mass and spaghetti in particular tend to became inextricable.

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As I said before, pasta, especially spaghetti, must be eaten ‘al dente’.  It means that the outside of the noodle is cooked while the central part remained slightly hard. This makes the texture very pleasant. I’m also told by reliable sources that pasta al dente is easier to digest. Well, being myself born in Naples, I prefer pasta al ‘doppio dente’, which means even harder.

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In this specific case I thought that simple is beautiful so I have topped my spaghetti with a couple of tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and a spray of freshly grated parmesan cheese. You will be surprised how good it is.

Pasta e Piselli (Pasta with Peas)

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In the last week the weather in Tuscany has dramatically improved. It is sunny and pleasantly warm and one can feel that summer is getting closer and closer. A true sign of warmer weather is that spring vegetables are now appearing in the stores. Last night Celia and I had steamed Tuscan asparagus topped with olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan.

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Today we had a mid morning coffee in the bar in our piazza (and a cornetto as we had a little pang of hunger) and then we walked to our local Ortofrutta, which always sells great fresh fruit and veg, mostly local, at very reasonable prices. We immediately spotted piselli, peas, fresh in their pods and so I said: ‘Let’s have Pasta e piselli for lunch, we’ve got a bit of pancetta in the fridge that needs eating’. And that was it.

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Pasta e piselli is a traditional Neapolitan recipe that I often choose when out and about in Naples and I always end up in a Tavola Calda or a traditional Trattoria in the back streets of the old town. I now live in Lucca but cooking Neapolitan recipes always gives me a bit of connection to my roots. I remember when piselli where cheaper and more plentiful then now and my mother buying lots for a pasta or for a big “contorno” on Sundays. Because of the amount of work involved and the fun of it we children loved to remove the peas from their pods.

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I bought 250 Grams (about 1/2 pound) of fresh piselli, not a lot as the pods make up a large part of the weight, but it was just for two.

Out of season I always use good quality/organic frozen peas. They’re fine and require a shorter cooking time, about 15 minutes.

If you cannot find pancetta in a good supermarket or an Italian deli, look for good unsmoked bacon.

You can use any short pasta if you prefer, but traditionally people use tubetti (short little tubes) or broken spaghetti.

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PASTA E PISELLI

(Serves 2)

Pasta 250 gr. ( about ½ pound). I used spaghetti.

Pancetta 50 grams (2 oz)

2 tbsp extra virgin Olive Oil

1 medium onion

250 grams ( about ½ pound) of fresh peas in their pods

3 or 4 stalks of fresh flat parsley

Salt for the pasta to your liking (my ratio:  10 grams for 1 litter or 1/2 tbsp for 4 cups of water)

Water handy

Grated Parmesan or Grana cheese

Ground pepper

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Remove the peas from their pods

Slice the Pancetta

Chop the onions

Pour the olive oil in a frying pan or a low casserole and cook over a medium flame/setting.

Add the pancetta and fry lightly for a couple of minutes, then add the onions and continue cooking them in the oil until they softens and turn golden.

Add a cup of water and then the peas (you do not want to fry them).

When it starts boiling turn the flame down or put the stove on a low setting and cook for about half an hour until the peas soften. If it gets too dry add a further half a glass of water.

In the meantime bring a saucepan with water and salt up to the boil.

Break the spaghetti into short pieces.

Put the pasta in and cook it for ¾ of the prescribed time as you need to finish the cooking with the peas.

Using a handle strainer scoop the pasta into the casserole/frying pan and stir it gently with a wooden spoon into the peas and pancetta sauce. If it is gets too dry add some of the pasta cooking water. Cook for a couple of minutes or until the pasta is “al dente”.

Serve it slightly watery and sprinkle with grated Parmesan and ground pepper. This time I preferred it a bit milder without pepper.

Eat it with a spoon.

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Making coffee with the Moka Express

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My small collection. The stainless steel one with a green handle was my father’s. It is over 20 years old. I bought the third one when I met Celia, 24 years ago.

In Italy a coffee is a caffè, we don’t really call it espresso even if the most popular home coffee maker is the Bialetti Moka Express. If you want a different kind of coffee, this is named in a “derivative” way: caffè macchiato, caffè Americano, caffè corretto and so on. Incidentally a cappuccino is not considered a caffè, as often described outside Italy, it is just a cappuccino. The machine, the Moka Express, is called “la Moka” or in some families “la macchinetta (del caffè)”.

My grandparents used to make their caffè with a “caffettiera napoletana” until the Moka Express appeared in the shops.

As a child I remember my nonna (grandmother) used one and never moved onto the Moka. I belong to the generation of the Moka and own a few of them in different sizes, made of aluminium or stainless steel. I am not planning to upgrade to the espresso capsule coffee makers because I like to make my own coffee.

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To make a good cup of coffee you need good ground espresso coffee to start with (even better if you can grind your own beans), an efficient Moka Express, good water and a few grains of wisdom.

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You need to open the Moka, separate the top, the bottom and the funnel, remove the old coffee, rinse with water making sure that all the old coffee grains are removed. To clean the gasket/washer use the handle of a teaspoon. Never, never use soap.

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Now fill the bottom with water up to the level of the valve, insert the funnel and fill it with ground coffee with a small spoon making sure that no coffee sits on the rim otherwise the Moka cannot be properly sealed. If grains of coffee land on the rim just remove them with a wet finger. You will end up with a small heap. Do not press the coffee down!

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Perfectly align the top and the bottom and slowly screw them together until tight but do not overdo it! If you have one put the little splash guard on the top of the spout where the coffee comes through, this stops any spitting.

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Place the kettle on the stove, on the smallest burner over the lowest flame. Italian hobs always have a little burner for the coffee, you might need to use a trivet. If you have an electric/induction stove use a low setting.

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After 5 to 10 minutes depending on your stove and the size of your Moka an intense aroma of coffee will pervade your kitchen and then the coffee starts to percolate, producing a very dark and creamy liquid with thin trickles of yellow froth. At this stage put the lid down if you don’t have the splash guard, as in the final stage hot coffee may spray over the edge.

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If you listen carefully you will notice that the tone of the gurgling changes . This signals the coffee is in the final stage and for me this is music to my ears.

The coffee is now ready, turn the stove off immediately otherwise your coffee will boil and be ruined. Remove the kettle from an electric stove, as the hotplate doesn’t cool down immediately.

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Italian common wisdom says that when coffee is made at the end of the meal all the food smells from the kitchen vanish. This is true.

Pour the coffee in small cups. Add a coffee spoon of sugar if you like it (I do) or a dash of milk.

After the Moka has cooled down do not clean it but leave the spent grains there. That’s how your Moka gets proved, and the coffee gets better and better.

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Now all that remains is to sip your caffè.

 

 

 

My Kitchen Cupboard

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Sometime ago in England I was discussing the philosophy of Italian food with an old friend when she out of the blue asked me: ‘But what do you keep in your kitchen cupboard?’

It was a very interesting question because I had never thought about it. In fact wherever I have put roots down during my wanderings, I have recreated my ‘cupboard’ automatically in a few days without thinking, even if space was limited during my flat sharing days.

The beauty of Italian cooking is its simplicity and how with just a few ingredients you can make a great meal. This made me very popular when I was single and living abroad!

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My mother’s store never lacked certain ingredients and a big deep saucepan for pasta and a large shallow pan for sauces are also essentials. A great Italian meal can be whisked up on nothing more than a two ring camping stove.

In a few words I will try to explain what I mean by a ‘cupboard’. It is not the food or the ingredients I have in my Kitchen, that’s actually the store/supply/stock or the ‘Cambusa’ as we Italian sailors call it. A cupboard is the basics that are required to produce most Italian dishes (which incidentally amount to a few thousand) with the addition of a few fresh ingredients. It is also possible with what is stored in it to cook everyday good food without the need of popping to a shop. Some ingredients like olive oil are more than essential, without them the list of dishes shrinks badly.

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I grabbed an A4 sheet and a pencil, sat at the kitchen table, scribbled a list of items and handed it to her. Within this list I starred a few super essential ingredients without which one cannot produce an Italian meal. Herbs can be grown in small pots inside or out and also add to culinary feel of any kitchen.

This is my list (with the starred ingredients). Did I forget anything?

Extra Virgin Olive oil (*)

Tinned/bottled Tomatoes (*)

Tomato paste

Pasta – long and short (pasta lunga and pasta corta) Spaghetti, penne etc. (*)

Rice: Long grain parboiled and risotto rice (Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone nano)

Onions (*)

Garlic (*)

Parsley (*)

Basil (*)

Oregano

Bay leaves

Sage (fresh when possible)

Rosemary (fresh when possible)

Pine kernels

Almonds

Raisins and/or sultanas

Bread crumbs

Honey

Eggs (*)

Olives

Capers in salt

Lemons

Vinegar (red wine and balsamic)

Bread (*)

Black pepper

Chilli

Sea salt (Coarse and fine , sale grosso and sale fino) (*)

Bread crumbs

Flour (00)

Fennel seeds

Cumin seeds

Yeast

Expresso coffee (beans or grinded) (*)

Sugar (Cane and/or white) (*)

Parmigiano Reggiano (*)

Pecorino Cheese (dry)

Butter (unsalted)

Milk

Dry lentils

Dry cannellini beans

Tinned lentils, beans (Cannellini or Borlotti), chick peas

Tinned tuna in olive oil

Tinned sardines in olive oil

 

I think I listed everything I need and if I am tired and can’t be bother to buy food on the way home I can always make a great bowl of pasta from my cupboard and feed the family within 15 minutes!

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About Me

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Hello I am Enzo Cammarota and welcome to my site. I am based in Northen Tuscany, Italy, and my food blog is rooted in Italian food. I was born in Naples further south but I now live with my wife Celia and our daughter Isabella in one of the finest areas in Tuscany where the purest olive oil is produced. However in between I have worked in the US, UK and all over the world taking my passion for food with me and being an observer of local culinary traditions. My recipes have therefore been continually adapted to local ingredients but I have never forgotten my deeply embedded Neapolitan roots. As a child I was deeply immersed in our local food tradition and as soon as I was allowed, I joined my mother in the kitchen to help with the preparation of our never-ending family Sunday meals with a dozen people around the table enjoying ten or more courses. The best cookery school ever! I always remember with great nostalgia the conversation and laughter with friends and relatives as we all tucked in. Through this blog I will share the recipes that have been in my family for generations and those that I have been so generously shared by friends in Tuscany and beyond. But not only nostalgia and tradition play a part in my blog. All my life I have been curious about food so I am always learning something new and I love it! I enjoy researching old cooking techniques and recipes, especially in Italy. You will be surprised that some of them, still in use, go back to classical times or even to prehistoric epochs! I also love to source local produce and meet the people that are passionate about producing good food against all the odds!

Enzo Cooking