On Cooking and Serving Pasta

Pasta Boiling on the Stove

Pasta Boiling on the Stove

This column has two sources of inspiration: From Italy, the Truth about Pasta, an article Nancy Harmon Jenkins wrote for the New York Times, and a thread on rec.food.cooking in which people said that they preferred their pasta be served with a spoonful of sauce on the top and more on the side so they could add it if they wanted to.

When one lives in a country one tends to assume that the national dishes are served the same way beyond the national borders — this is not necessarily the case when it comes to pasta.

The major difference between pasta as it is served in Italy and pasta as it is served elsewhere is that for an Italian pasta is generally a first course, to be followed by a second course of some kind, be it meat, fish, vegetable, or even pizza (many elegant Italian pizzerie offer ample selections of pasta dishes for their guests to start off with). In other words, it is a part of a meal — important, yes, but certainly not dominant.

Portion size reflects this: One generally figures A bit less than a quarter pound of uncooked dry pasta per person (about 80 grams), which translates into a pleasantly full deep-dish plateful. A mound is too much, because it will leave no space for the rest of the meal.

Penne al Sugo, with Meat Sauce

Penne al Sugo, with Meat Sauce

Saucing is also quite important; moderation is again the key. One to two tablespoons of a liquid sauce such as aglio olio, and a quarter cup (or more, to taste) of a thicker sauce such as sugo alla bolognese per person, stirred into the pasta in the serving bowl so as to thoroughly coat the pasta. The pasta should not be swimming in the sauce, nor should it be bone dry: The one complements the other.

Grated cheese? Depends upon the sauce; tomato sauce and meat-based sauces generally call for it and cream sauces sometimes profit from it, whereas it can be distracting in vegetable or fish-based sauces. In any case, it is served at the table, and most people opt for one or two teaspoons, not a heavy dusting that overwhelms everything else.

We now come to a thorny issue: what kind of pasta?

Though Italian cookbooks, like their English language counterparts, give detailed instructions for home-made pasta, few Italians in Italy have the time to make it at home except on special occasions.

Day-in-and-day-out it’s commercially prepared dry pasta out of a box. Nor is this a fallback; properly cooked good quality commercially prepared pasta is just as good as if not better than what most people can make at home. The difference lies in the flour: Commercial producers use durum wheat semolina, which produces a pasta that will bear up well to cooking, maintaining its pleasant al dente texture on the way to the table.

Unfortunately, as a friend of mine who owned a pasta factory observes, preparing dough from durum wheat semolina requires industrial mixers or long kneading times — more than enough, he says, to burn out the motor of a home pasta machine. Because of this home cooks resort to soft wheat flour (grade 00, which has slightly less gluten than American cake flour); the results can be superb but require extreme care in the cooking because the pasta overcooks easily.

There are two basic kinds of commercial pasta:

  • Pasta all’uovo, egg pasta such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, and whatnot (these are the same tagliatelle one makes at home, but made with durum wheat semolina)
  • Pasta di semola di grano duro, made with durum wheat semolina, water and a little salt.
Tagliatelle Paglia e Fieno

Tagliatelle Paglia e Fieno

The former are flat and of varying width, whereas the latter comes in all sorts of shapes, from spaghetti to penne to cart wheels.
Which kind should you use?

Pasta all’uovo goes well with hearty fare, for example meat-based sauces or rich pomarola. Pasta all’uovo can also be flavored with other ingredients, for example spinach, which turns it green, tomato, which turns it red, or squid ink, which turns it black. Lasagne made with egg pasta are also superb.

Because of the variety of shapes it comes in pasta di semola di grano duro is more versatile; which shape to use depends upon the sauce and personal taste. Spaghetti, spaghettini, bucatini and other strands go well with fairly liquid sauces. Shorter hollow pastas, for example penne or tortiglioni, go well with thick sauces, in part because they trap the sauce. They also work well in baked dishes, because they have considerable body and can withstand being heated through a second time. Other shorter flat pastas, for example farfalle (butterflies or bow ties), work nicely with cream sauces because the sauce tends to stick to their surfaces.

In terms of purchasing commercial pastas, there are many brands to choose from; in Italy the most widely distributed brands are Buitoni, De Cecco, Barilla, Agnesi, and Voiello (not necessarily in this order).

There is also pasta artigianale, pasta made in smaller factories by artisans whose chief concern is quality. Though the basic ingredients are the same, that’s where the resemblance ends: The artisans extrude their pasta through bronze dies that leave microstriations to capture and hold the sauce, and also dry it at lower temperatures, thus preserving the flavors of the wheat. According to Nancy Harmon Jenkins, four of these producers export to the United States: Rustichella D’Abruzzo, Latini, Benedetto Cavalieri and Martelli. If you cannot find Italian pasta in your market all is not lost: read the labels of what’s available, and pick pasta made with durum wheat flour or semolina. Avoid dried pasta made with simple bread flour (much of the Northern European pasta, for example) because it won’t hold up to cooking.

Cooking pasta is as easy as boiling water, but does require care.

You should figure a a quart of water per quarter pound of pasta (1 liter of water per 100 grams of pasta), and expand this to 6 quarts for a pound. If you don’t use enough water the pasta will be gummy, so don’t stint.

Tossing Pasta in a Skillet to Coat it with The Sauce

Tossing Pasta in a Skillet to Coat it with The Sauce

Bring the water to a rolling boil, salt it with 2 teaspoons of salt per quart of water, and add the pasta, stirring gently to separate the pieces and keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The pasta package will probably say how long it should cook for, but don’t trust it. A couple of minutes before it is supposed to be done fish out a piece and break it open; in the center you will see a whitish area of uncooked pasta that is poetically known as the anima, or soul of the pasta. Ladle a couple of ladles of hot water into the serving bowl to warm it and continue cooking the pasta until the anima barely fades; drain it, giving it one or two good shakes to remove most of the water (it will continue to absorb water for a minute or two), transfer it to the bowl, stir the sauce into it and serve.

As a variation, if the sauce is fairly liquid, say for penne rosé, warm it in a skillet as the pasta cooks, and when the pasta is just shy of being done drain it and transfer while it’s still dripping it to the skillet. Turn the heat to high and toss the pasta as you would an omelet; as it finishes cooking it will absorb the sauce and taste much better. On restaurant menus pasta cooked this way is called strascicata or saltata in padella.


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Categories: Pasta, Risotto, Gnocchi... Minestre Asciutte, Tecniques

Author:Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Italy boasts an astonishing number of varietals, denominations, and wines, and tremendous changes are sweeping the land. New wines are being created, new DOCs are being introduced, and the existing denominations are overhauling their regulations both to reflect the practices adopted by their member wineries and to favor improvements in quality. Even the most staid and stolid region can flower seemingly overnight, emerging with exciting new wines and wineries that require rewriting the enological maps and rethinking one's positions. And, of course, recipes too, because cuisine and wine are closely intertwined and it's difficult to imagine one without the other.


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2 Comments on “On Cooking and Serving Pasta”

  1. March 30, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

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  2. April 9, 2013 at 3:19 am #

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