Pasta gets too much bad press these days I believe, whether because of gluten or calories, which is a pity given that this incredibly diverse and versatile food could keep children and adults alike happily fed and never bored, provided it is properly cooked and dressed. To begin with, there are over 300 shapes of pasta, each one with a story to tell and a sauce to go with it. The same pasta can take different sauces, but it is not a myth that you should NOT eat spaghetti with ragù (or Bolognese sauce) or that a particular sauce needs a specific type of pasta; for instance Amatriciana and Carbonara call for bucatini , arrabbiata calls for penne and linguine are made for pesto, just to name but a few of the most common sauces. Somehow Italians learn all this growing up and we tend to be rather particular when things are not quite the way they ought to be, at least I am.
In my opinion there are two things one must get right to be able to fully appreciate pasta: one is the quality of pasta, the other is the cooking of it. The first aspect is based, for dried pasta, on the brand. Chose a bronze-die, slow dried at lower temperature type of pasta, the one which looks rough on the surface and slightly whitish/dusty, not the yellow, glassy and far too cheap to be good type. Brands available in the UK are Napolina, Rummo, De Cecco, Garofalo and few others, available in gourmet shops (count yourself lucky if you can source some Rustichella d'Abruzzo). It is well worth spending an extra pound to enjoy a good plate of pasta. At the end of the day the standard portion as a main is 80-100g for an adult. A hungry growing teenager might need more. For fresh pasta...well, the only thing I can say is: learn to make it yourself. It is not too difficult and you will truly understand what it is all about. Tortelloni, ravioli, anolini, cappelletti, lasagne...there is absolutely no comparison with the slippery uninspiring stuff on offer on most supermarkets' shelves. You can also freeze fresh pasta easily, so you just have to make pasta once in a while and keep it for those days when you would reach for the supermarket bought ready meal. I can assure you that you will be a happier (and healthier) person for it! A good starting point is the recipe I give here.
For the second aspect, the cooking of pasta requires a large pot, where pasta can move freely in boiling salted water. Adding salt increases the boiling temperature of water and imparts some flavour to the otherwise unsalted pasta. Pasta should be cooked al dente (still with some bite to it) following the timings suggested on the packet for dry pasta and allowing 2-3 minutes for freshly made pasta, no more. It is a good idea to start tasting it before draining from a minute before the end of the suggested cooking time, just to be sure. Drain the pasta when still slightly too al dente especially if you are also cooking it in the sauce for a further couple of minutes.
Going back to the original idea of this blog post, I would like to share two very different recipes for pasta sauces; one for bucatini, a long pasta, a bit like spaghetti, but with a larger cross section and a hole running through the length of them, the other for a short pasta, like pennette, rigatoni or tortiglioni. Both sauces are ideal for these last days of winter and early spring.
Rosemary and cannellini beans pasta
150g dried cannellini beans (or 1 tin)
1 celery stick
1 bay leaf
5 tbsp xv olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1-2 sprigs rosemary, finely chopped
salt and black pepper
350g short pasta (penne rigate, penne lisce, tortiglioni or pennette)
Soak the cannellini beans overnight in plenty cold water, adding a pinch of bicarbonate to help softening the skin. The next day drain the beans and wash them. Place them in a large pan filled with cold water, the celery stick and bay leaf. Cook until soft (approximately one hour or, if you have a pressure cooker, it should take approximately 20 minutes), but still holding their shape, then add some coarse sea salt to taste. Discard the celery and bay leaf and drain the beans. Set aside until needed reserving some of the cooking water. If using tinned beans, drain them and proceed as follows.
In a large frying pan heat half the olive oil with the garlic and chopped rosemary, Fry for 30 seconds. Add the drained beans and mash them using a potato ricer. Add some of the cooking water if too dry, season to taste and cook for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the remaining olive oil and plenty black pepper.
In the meantime bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add a handful of coarse sea salt and cook the pasta till al dente. Drain the pasta and add directly to the pan with the sauce. Toss around a couple of times, adding a bit of pasta cooking water if necessary. Serve hot with a round of olive oil and some fresh rosemary sprigs.
Pasta coi broccoli (Sicilian cauliflower pasta)
1 small cauliflower (core discarded and cut into florets)
xv olive oil
1 small white onion, finely chopped
3 anchovy fillets (omit if vegetarian)
25g pine nuts
good pinch of saffron strands
sea salt and black pepper
500g bucatini (or the thickest spaghetti you can get)
hard pecorino or dried ricotta (alternatively some parmesan) freshly grated
Boil the cauliflower florets in salted water and drain while still firm reserving the cooking water. Put the anchovies, olive oil and chopped onion in a large frying pan and saute` gently, crushing the anchovies with a fork. Add the currants, pine nuts and the boiled cauliflower florets. Cook for about 10 minutes, crushing the cauliflower and blending the flavours. Add some of the cooking water if necessary and the saffron strands towards the end.
In the meantime boil the bucatini in the reserved cauliflower cooking water, until just al dente. Drain and place in the saucepan with the 'broccoli' , mixing until well coated. Dress with the grated cheese and black pepper. Serve hot.