FOR an amazing seven decades I have been loving, making, cooking and eating pasta. I know that my pasta-consuming career must have started more than 70 years ago, because I would have eaten pasta shortly after I was born, in 1937. The first solid food Italian babies enjoy is inevitably pasta, which for me – and for many other Italians – marked the beginning of a lifelong passion.
No food is more Italian or more satisfactory to eat than pasta.
A central philosophy of Italian cooking is matching the right pasta to the right sauce. Certain types of sauce are best for fresh pasta, others for dried; some go with long pasta, some with short. In general, the smoother the pasta, the thinner the sauce; the more convoluted the pasta shape or the rougher its surface, the thicker the sauce. (New shapes are being invented all the time, to create something that will hold a sauce in the most delicious way.) Regionally throughout Italy there are many different pasta and sauces and combinations. It is not an exact science, but the more you explore, the more you experience, the better you will be at making your own informed choices.
How much pasta?
For small portions, for a starter, allow 50g dried or 90g fresh pasta per person. For normal portions, for a lunch with a salad, say, cook 70-80g dried or 100-110g fresh pasta per person. Everything depends, of course, on the quality and the shape of the pasta, and on appetite.
The pan in which you boil the pasta must be large – broad as well as high – because you will be using a lot of water. Ideally the pan should be larger at the base than at the top, which helps retain the heat. You also need a lid, to cover the pan briefly once the pasta has been added in order to bring the water back to boiling point quickly. The lid is then taken off during cooking.
Use one litre of water per 100g of pasta. You need at least this amount because of the starch the pasta gives out in cooking. If there were too small a quantity of water, the dissolving starch would be re-absorbed by the pasta. The water must be boiling vigorously when the pasta is added.
Add 10g salt per litre of water just before it comes to the boil and the pasta is added. Use coarse sea salt if possible.
When the water comes to the boil, add small pasta shapes all at once and stir after 20-30 seconds. Cover until the water comes back to the boil. Remove the lid and cook the pasta for two to three minutes for fresh homemade pasta and up to 18 or even 20 minutes for dried non-egg pasta, most Pugliese pastas and some dried filled pastas. (Generally speaking, a dried pasta takes twice the cooking time of its fresh equivalent.) If you are cooking longer strands, put them into the boiling water in bunches, never breaking them. If your pot is tall enough, as the pasta at the bottom softens, push it down with a wooden fork until fully submerged.
Stir as above, and cook for the appropriate length of time.
You don’t need to add oil to a pan of pasta unless you are cooking pasta sheets such as lasagne, which might stick together: to prevent this, add the sheets one by one to the oiled water so that the oil coats the lasagne. Otherwise, to prevent pasta sticking together, you should stir once or twice during cooking, using a wooden fork.
The al dente test
This can never be precise: al dente means literally ‘to the tooth’, which suggests not stiff, not soft, but pliable and cooked through, with no chalky core at the centre. Test one or two pieces of pasta at the end of cooking to see if it is to your liking.
Remove a piece with your wooden fork, and cool a little before tasting. Most Italians like it al dente, still with that light resistance to the tooth; the Neapolitans like their pasta with so much resistance that strands can spring off the plate. Others like it softer. But please don’t cook it for too long, as it becomes slightly indigestible, giving you a feeling of weight in your stomach.
Draining the pasta
Have ready a large colander in the sink, into which you drain the pasta. (Save a few tablespoons of the cooking water; it could be useful if your sauce is too dry or too thick.) Never rinse the pasta, as this will wash away too much of the starch coating. If you are cooking long pasta, you could lift this from the pan using pasta tongs and then return it to the pan after most of the water has been drained off. © The Telegraph