Wednesday, April 1, 2015

How to (properly) cook pasta...



If you want to live in Italy one day, then of course you’ll have to learn to cook. And nothing says "Italian food" quite like pasta. 

We can't envision an Italian table, restaurant, or family dinner without picturing a heaping dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce, right?  Fair enough. But let's examine our picture a little more closely.

Are you sure that the pasta has been cooked properly? Are those spaghetti as hot as they should be? And are they perfectly al dente?  Do they meet all the requirements of a dish of spaghetti, worthy of the name association? In countries outside of Italy, all too often, the answer is a resounding "no." I'm afraid that what we frequently see is an anemic, overcooked glob of sticky noodles served as a side dish to just about anything. Alas.

As expats (or would-be expats) let's try not to ruin our reputation by making some blasphemous mistake against this symbol of national pride. There are kitchen protocols that any native-born Italian totally takes for granted.  But for the rest of us, it might be useful to peek behind the curtain and see what the wizard is up to...

First, put the water to boil and use plenty of salt. Note that the salt should be generous, and coarse sea salt is preferred for this purpose. It has a better flavor than table salt and is easier to dose. We're going to use a big pot, with a lot of water, so do not assume that all the salt you add will be absorbed by the pasta. Most of it will just remain in the water and consequently discarded.  A tablespoon of sale grosso in 2.5 to 3 liters (about 3 quarts) of water is about right.

Add the pasta.  Stir at least every couple of minutes. You don't want the pasta to "attaccarsi," to stick together.  For certain shapes that have a tendency to do so (orecchiette, fusilli), you might want to stir more frequently. Do not abandon your pasta! Let it know you care. Stir with tender love and don't traumatize it in the process. If you stir properly, you won't need to add any oil to prevent sticking.

How long do we cook our pasta? You want to avoid overcooking at all costs! It is the worst and yet most common mistake. No Italian would ever eat overcooked pasta.  If you follow the instructions on the package, you'll want to reduce the cooking time by a couple of minutes. Not because they fib about the actual cooking time, but because you need those couple of minutes to make the pasta "jump."

When your pasta is ready (a minute or two under-cooked) you are going to drain it, but not the way you think, with a drainer (colander). No, that is only used for very large quantities or for some very particular kinds of sauces. If you're just cooking for yourself and your partner/family, all you'll need is a big kitchen spoon with holes, or in the case of spaghetti, a prendispaghetti (literally, spaghetti taker), which has some "fingers" to grab it with.

OK, your pasta is two minutes under-cooked and you're draining it with the proper tool. In fact, you're not draining too much, because a little water will be absorbed during the jumping. 

As you transfer your pasta to the saucepan, turn the fire on again. You are actually going to complete the cooking process, for a couple of minutes, by making the pasta jump (tossing it) with its sauce. If you're not an expert, you can just stir carefully. And adding a little of the salty water (the one where you cooked the pasta) if the sauce seems to thicken too much is a great tip.

In Italy, there is no such thing as cooking a plain dish of pasta then putting the sauce on top.  No. You stir, you jump. Every single rigatone must first flirt with, then embrace, and finally consummate the relationship with its portion of sauce.

Serve immediately, as you don't want to spoil it all by making another 10-minute conversation with your guests. Your table must be already set. Your kids' hands washed. When pasta is ready, everybody sits down and eats. No exceptions.

By the way, are your plates warm? Do you want to risk dropping the temperature of your perfectly cooked pasta by placing it on cold plates? No, of course not.  This is the little-known 4th law of thermodynamics, proposed by Galileo two centuries before Carnot, et al. (Joking)

Italians keep their plates warm. There are various techniques for this: put them in warm water while you're cooking, or else keep them around the stove. Whatever you do, just don't let them get cold.

Is that all we need to know about how to cook pasta?  Well, that's the basics, but of course there are subtle nuances in cooking pasta that are as mysterious as witchcraft and they can't be so easily explained. It requires practice.

One last bit of advice. I shouldn't have to say this, but experience has taught me that it's necessary to point it out: 

Don't EVER reheat pasta leftovers from the day before!

Wasting food is a sin, but eating day-old pasta is a mortal sin. If, in a moment of weakness, you commit this transgression, please seek the counsel of an ordained priest immediately, and he will prescribe an appropriate penance. The fate of your immortal soul is at stake.

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