May 08, 2005

Pasta 101 

Today I feel in the mood to write something fun and light, escapist.

So, get ready for a brief introduction to the wonderful world of pasta!

Pasta is probably the most typical and widely known Italian food. Pasta is very simple, just durum wheat flour and water - some versions contain also egg and other ingredients, but your basic pasta is binary. Ancient Romans already knew mixed flour and water, and dried pasta was known in Sicily in the 12th century, where it was introduced by the Arabs (it's not clear whether it was an Arab invention or they just learnt about it somewhere else - however, durum wheat is also called Saracen wheat in Italy). A couple of centuries later, Marco Polo probably brought back from China the idea of thin and long pasta - noodles or spaghetti.

Nowadays, pasta comes in dozens of different shapes and sizes, but the basics are just a few: spaghetti, long and thin. Penne or macaroni, thin-walled cylinders grooved on the outside. Fusilli, with a helix shape.
Pasta is made by mixing water and flour, and then extruding the mixture through Teflon (for current qualities) or bronze (for fine products) nozzles - there are variations of these machines for special shapes. Pasta is then dried in tunnel ovens and packed - I worked in a pasta factory for a few weeks.
Home-made pasta is thinned using special hand-powered machines which press the soft dough between two steel rolls - something vaguely similar to the rolling of steel.

How to properly cook pasta then? Italians like it pretty hard, "al dente" that means you must feel it under your teeth. Only durum wheat pasta will hold the cooking properly. However, allow plenty of water - ideally, 1 liter for every 100 g of pasta, but basically pasta must be able to "swim" in the cooking water. Bring the water to a vigorous boil and add a good pinch of salt (according to taste) and then the pasta, all at once. Stir to avoid sticking and return to a vigorous boil. Take the cooking time on the package as a guideline, and taste your pasta to check when it's cooked - no more than 10 - 12 minutes, usually. It depends from type to type. Finally, drain it.

The most interesting thing of pasta is that it's extremely versatile: in Italy alone, there are hundreds of different sauces to dress it. Meat, vegetables, mushrooms - and you can make your own too. Today, for example, I cooked penne with pancetta (like streaky bacon, but cured differently) and asparagus.

The most basic recipe is to dress your hot, just-drained pasta with extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmigiano (or Pecorino) cheese. Another simple but tasty recipe is known as Aglio e Peperoncino (Garlic & Chilli): while pasta - spaghetti, usually - is cooking, lightly fry in generous oil some chopped garlic and dried or fresh chillies (Italian chillies are red, horn-shaped and used mainly dried). You can make it all the way from mild to extra hot, just adjust the dose of chilli. When pasta is cooked, drain it and trow it in the pan together with the other ingredients to sautee all together for a minute or two, then serve and drizzle with grated cheese.

Well guys and dolls, I got hungry thinking about this stuff! I hope you can enjoy my culinary dissertations as well.


Designed to suit people who want to deepen their knowledge and use of extra virgin olive oil. A complete meal, comprising starter, first course, second course and dessert, will be prepared in each cooking class.
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