I couldn’t very well leave Italy without banging on about pasta first. I love pasta. It’s simple and inexpensive, and comes into its own only when few ingredients are used – Italy’s answer to eating frugally.
Italians have an innate ability to do it well. They know the rules and stick by them. When I was 20 I lived in Italy for 6 months. Then, I had no clue that pasta should only be added to boiling water, and that above all, the water should be salted first. I couldn’t understand why my Italian friends got so exasperated with me, or why it would make any difference. I have since realised how good a bowl of pasta can be.
Now, coming back to Italy after 9 years, cooking and eating pasta is my life-saver on a tight traveller’s budget. It is the best way to eat well with thrift, using up the odd vegetable and bit of garlic to create something truly tasty. The most stand-out pasta dishes I’ve eaten here have been the simplest. Sweet cherry tomatoes and garlic; lemon and thyme butter; finely chopped herbs; bashed almonds and lemon juice; foraged nettles and fresh chilli; basil pesto. All basic ingredients, tossed through hot pasta with just a little Parmesan and olive oil to finish. I ate all of these dishes in people’s homes.
Dinners that I cooked or others made for me, created from the remains of yesterday’s shopping or picked fresh from gardens (pasta dishes are the best way to use up leftover bits and pieces). They are good meals best eaten at home and far from any restaurant, in my opinion!
Cooking is not and should not be about rules, but when it comes to pasta, there are a few that are best followed. They are not difficult rules, just principles that will transform the stodgy sauce-fest that pasta often becomes into what the Italians really intended.
Rule number one. Pasta begins with a pot of boiling water.
Use a large pot rather than cramming pasta into a small pan. It will stick. Heat your water until it gets to a rolling boil, and only then, add your pasta.
Rule number two. Add salt.
Don’t wait until after your pasta is cooked to season it. Pasta should absorb the salt from the water it’s cooked in. Add a good amount, tasting the water as you go. Italians say it should taste like sea water.
Rule number three. Don’t overcook.
Pasta is crap if it’s overcooked. Stodgy and tasteless. Start trying it a few minutes before the packet instructions tell you it’s ready. It should be cooked but still have a bit of a bite. The Italians say al dente, which translates as ‘to the tooth’. An Italian cook and friend once told me that al dente pasta is better because it will make you eat slower and help digestion. I’m not sure how true that is. I’m also not sure why, if that’s the case, Italians overcook their vegetables so much!
Rule number four. The simpler the better.
What you add to your pasta should be minimal. I learnt this rule quickly thanks to Gennaro Contaldo. That cockney-Italian you might or might not have seen on Saturday Kitchen. He once showed me how to make the most simple of pasta dishes, consisting only of garlic, black pepper and good olive oil. He calls it Midnight Spaghettata (his title): what you make after a night out, drunk and in need of a quick fix. Put the spaghetti on to cook. In a pan, fry garlic in olive oil, toss through the spaghetti with a good splash of pasta water, then add a load of black pepper, good olive oil and eat. It was truly delicious, and something I often make when I’m either skint or have nothing in the fridge. My next go-to is cherry tomatoes, cooked down in a pan with some chopped garlic and maybe one or two anchovies. Finished with Parmesan and olive oil, it’s really very good
Rule number five. Save the pasta water.
That murky water that we so often tip down the drain will help unite pasta, vegetable and cheese. Scoop out a cupful of it just before your pasta is ready. Drain the rest of it, then either return the pasta to its pot or tip it into your hot pan of sauce (note: the sauce might not be a sauce yet, but it will soon become one!). Toss everything together, adding splashes of the pasta water and tossing and mixing continuously. The heat from the pan will help create a silky sauce.
Rule number six. Add Parmesan and good olive oil.
Good olive oil and Parmesan are must-haves. Or if not Parmesan, then a similar hard cheese. These can be expensive, but will go far if used sparingly and with care (here in Italy you can buy half a kilo of Parmesan for 4 euros! Stock up if you ever come this way). As the pasta water creates a sauce, so your cheese and oil will make every ingredient taste exactly as they should. Grate in the cheese, drizzle in some oil and toss while the pasta is still hot. Serve with more grated and drizzled on top.
Bring to the table and enjoy with friends.