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
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
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.