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Now Thatís Italian!
The Art of Preparing Perfect Pasta
By Kirk Leins
The subject of pasta is one of polarity. While it has the potential to be a quick and easy weeknight dinner, preparing it correctly requires a working knowledge of its complexities, an appreciation for its culinary importance, and the belief that with a pot of boiling water and some great ingredients you, too, can cook like an Italian.
Most people I know love pasta. This includes my 4-year old son. Then again, his name is Rocco, so he may not have a choice in the matter. Either way, pasta is a go-to ingredient for me. It's one that I can quickly prepare in a variety of styles and with complete confidence he'll eat it.
What Rocco doesn't realize is that the pasta dishes his daddy makes for him are unlike the ones he'll eventually eat in his school cafeteria, or the majority of his friends' homes, or even most restaurants. I'm really not tooting my own horn here, but with the exception of those folks who have close ties to Italy or an affinity for authentic Italian cooking, many American cooks miss the mark when it comes to pasta.
In Italy, sauce is a carefully chosen accent meant to highlight the flavor, shape and texture of a specific type of pasta. In other words, Italians match the sauce to the pasta. Considering there are hundreds of types of dried and fresh pastas, telling you how to match each and every one would require me to write a textbook. What I can do, however, is give you some general rules to follow.
Dried pastas are great for sauces based in olive oil and fresh pastas are better for sauces based mainly in cream. Both types, however, can handle a tomato sauce or any kind of vegetable puree. The reason for these distinctions has to do with the pasta's ability to properly absorb the sauce.
In terms of the shape of the pasta you choose, think of it this way. Long and/or flat pastas such as spaghetti, linguini, and tagliatelle are perfect for holding lighter sauces with smaller sized ingredients. Shaped pastas such as penne, ziti and orecchiette are good for thick or chunky sauces, as they have more nooks and ridges that enable them to hold on to larger ingredients.
So, here's a question you're probably asking. What brands of pasta should I buy?
In Italy, the pasta industry is highly regulated. In order for a product to be labeled as "pasta" it must be made from 100 percent durum semolina flour, optimal for both texture and taste. Outside of Italy, these regulations do not necessarily exist. While there are some decent Italian brands available in many grocery stores, they do not compare to artisan Italian pastas available through various importers. These pastas are typically made from the highest quality flour, and are either cut by hand, or pressed through brass dyes, giving the pasta flawless ridges and texture.
One of my favorite importers is Olio2Go.com, a company I have also used to procure some of Italy's finest olive oils, vinegars, and sea salt. It made perfect sense to contact these good folks for a pasta recommendation.
A brand high on their list right now is Vicidomini, a 6th generation operation based in the Campania region of Italy. Be sure to check out the Olio2go website for the list of Vicidomini dried pastas they offer. While they cost more than the stuff you buy in the grocery store, Vicidomini is logarithmically better in quality. And when you look at the price per serving, it's still a great deal.
This brings us to the cooking process.
Probably the worst mistake people make when preparing their pasta is not using enough water when boiling it. The rule is for every pound of pasta you need to use 4 to 6 quarts of water. Tap waster is fine, as long as it is clean tasting. Otherwise, the water should be filtered. Using this amount of water obviously means you also need a large pot.
The science behind this is two-fold. First, when pasta is cooked, starches are released. More water means a lesser chance they'll cause the pasta to stick together. It also means there'll be less of a temperature drop when you add the pasta. Ergo, it'll cook quicker. While bringing your water to boil, be sure to keep the pot covered to prevent evaporation.
Once your water comes to a rapid boil, it's time to add a small handful or two of either sea salt or Kosher salt. You'll know you've added enough when the cooking water tastes like seawater. Don't worry. This is not going to make your pasta salty. Rather, it will serve as a way to bring out the flavor of the grain.
Allow the water to return to a rapid boil, add your pasta, and close the lid. This will diminish the drop in water temperature. After a minute, remove the lid, and using a pasta fork, give the pasta a good mix. Cooking time varies with the type of pasta you're cooking. Fresh pastas usually take only a couple of minutes, while dried pastas will obviously take longer. The key is pulling your pasta out at the right time. Just be sure to periodically stir the pasta throughout the duration of the cooking process.
The ultimate goal is for the pasta to achieve an al dente texture. In Italian, al dente means "to the tooth", so take that as a clue. Good pasta should have a chew to it, but it shouldn't stick to your teeth. When you cut a piece of perfectly cooked pasta, the very center should still be slightly opaque. If not, you have probably overcooked it. Keep practicing and after a while, you will be able to nail the perfect texture every time.
Before draining your pasta, I suggest reserving a cup or so of the cooking water. It can come in handy when you sauce your pasta. I'll explain in a second. The only other thing you need to know about draining pasta is to never ever rinse it under water. Doing so would destroy the wonderful flavor that developed during cooking. Once the pasta is drained, return it to the pot in which it was cooked.
When it comes to saucing your pasta, think of it like a salad. Instead of dumping all of the sauce on top and mixing it up, add a little at a time until all of the pasta is barely coated. If the pasta looks a little "tight" add a touch of the reserved cooking water to loosen it up. At this point, you can serve your pasta in warmed bowls, topped off with just a bit of the unused sauce.
Most pasta dishes do really well with an extra drizzle of good olive oil on top. Parmesan cheese is a whole other story. In Italy it is a major faux pas to serve Parmesan cheese with any pasta that contains seafood. Its addition is not only thought of as a heavy-handed practice, but it's also said to bring out the fishy qualities of the seafood.
When it is appropriate to add cheese to your pasta, make sure you use a good quality cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, or Ricotta Salata. Anything of lower quality, or anything that comes in a green can, will only step on the flavors of the dish.
It's time to do some cooking. I ordered three different Vicidomini pastas from Olio2go.com. Here they are along with the sauces I matched to them.
The sauce I chose for this pasta is a classic Carbonara, or as Rocco calls it, "Pasta with bacon and eggs."
Spaghetti Carbonara (serves 4)
In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to boil.
In a very large skillet placed over a medium-high flame, add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add pancetta or bacon and cook until crispy. Remove from heat and set aside.
Cook pasta until al dente. If the dried spaghetti is too long for your pot, feel free to break the strands in half. Reserve 1/2 - 1 cup of the pasta water before draining.
Add 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water to the skillet with the bacon and its rendered fat. Add the drained pasta and place over a low flame. Thoroughly mix for a minute or so. Remove skillet from heat and add egg, Parmigiano Reggiano, and a liberal dose of black pepper. Mix well. If the pasta seems too "tight", add more pasta water (a 1/4 cup at a time) and mix well until a creamy consistency is achieved.
Serve in warm bowls with extra Parmigiano Reggiano as garnish.
Tagliatelle with Beef Ragu (serves 4)
In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to boil.
In a heavy-bottomed skillet placed over a medium-high flame, heat 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil until hot and shimmering. Add ground sirloin and season well with salt and pepper. Fry the meat until completely browned, breaking it up into very small bits.
To the browned meat, add onion and garlic and sauté until the onions soften (approximately 3 to 4 minutes). Add white wine and bring to a boil. Slightly turn down the heat and allow the wine to reduce. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Simmer the mixture for 30 minutes. Add cream (if desired) and basil leaves during the last 5 minutes of cooking.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta to an al dente consistency. If the dried tagliatelle is too long for your pot, feel free to break the strands in half. Drain in a colander and return to the pot. One ladle at a time, add Ragu sauce to the pasta and mix until all the strands are lightly coated.
Serve in warm bowls and top with a ladle of unused sauce. Garnish the pasta with Parmigiano Reggiano.
Pennoni Rigate with Zucchini and Fontina Sauce (serves 4)
In a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to boil.
In a large skillet, heat two to three tablespoons of olive oil until hot. Add onion and sauté for two minutes. Add zucchini and season with salt and pepper. Sauté the zucchini until slightly softened and add the wine. Bring the wine to a simmer and allow it to reduce completely.
While hot, transfer the sautéed vegetables to a blender or a food processor. Add chicken stock and cream, and process until smooth. With the blender or processor still running, add the cheese a little at a time and process until fully incorporated. Transfer the sauce to a pot and keep warm over a very low heat.
Cook pasta to an al dente consistency. Drain well and toss with two thirds of the sauce. Serve in warm bowls and top with remaining sauce. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of good olive oil.
Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. Sign up for Kirk's free newsletter and cooking blog at www.NoTimeToCookDinner.com.
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