How to Cook a Perfect Pasta

dsc06503

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.

dsc06985

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.

dsc06472

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.

dsc06473

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!

dsc06479

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.

dsc06500

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.

dsc06502

dsc06510

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)

Image

Pasta e Piselli1

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.

Pasta e Piselli23Pasta e Piselli24

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.

Pasta e Piselli2Pasta e Piselli3Pasta e Piselli4

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.

Pasta e Piselli5Pasta e Piselli6Pasta e Piselli7

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.

Pasta e Piselli8Pasta e Piselli9Pasta e Piselli10

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

Pasta e Piselli11Pasta e Piselli12Pasta e Piselli13Pasta e Piselli14Pasta e Piselli15

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.

Pasta e Piselli16Pasta e Piselli17Pasta e Piselli18Pasta e Piselli20Pasta e Piselli19Pasta e Piselli22