So let’s just say that there is one common mistake made internationally when preparing Italian food. It is the most complained of mistake amongst Italians; an unforgivable faux pas. It is also easily rectifiable. This advice does not come lightly as I do always think that whenever a generalisation is made about Italian food, such as there is no “cream of anything soup or the like in Italy”, that there is always at least one exception lingering out there with regional differences being what they are. Nonetheless, here it is: do not overcook pasta. Ever. It is much worse to overcook the pasta than to make a mistake with the sauce. The ideal is to synchronise the pasta cooking time with the sauce cooking time but if that is too complicated, usually it is better to make the sauce in advance rather than the other way around. If you need guidance, the package often indicates the time for “al dente” pasta (fresh pasta is another story).
In most places in the world, it is often the most simple, basic of everyday foods that must be done correctly. Whatever your basic food: bread, rice, pasta or cornmeal, there is the perfect way of preparing it. Often we don’t even realise it….until it is done incorrectly. Like with almost everything in life, the door swings both ways. For example, for all their complaining about improperly prepared pasta, I am teaching Italians, one at a time, the art of making toast. I start with explaining that it is like pasta and must be done perfectly. That seems to impress on them the importance of making toast properly. I had always thought people just made toast. It never occurred to me that someone would toast bread and allow it to cool completely before attempting to put rock hard butter on for example. Or that someone would spoon the contents of half a jar of jam on top of shards of unmelted butter all precariously piled on some miserable, cold toast. Now if you like toast, you can appreciate how Italians feel about pasta which has been pre-cooked and reheated or has sat soggily in its sauce waiting for its unhappy diner.
Properly cooked pasta is a thing of beauty. Now while from north to south of Italy there are differences in what degree of “al dente” is acceptable, the country is unified in what “al dente” does not mean. Without ado, here are my ten commandments of pasta (and with everything in Italy, there are always a few exceptions):
THE 10 COMMANDMENTS OF PASTA:
I. Thou shalt select the appropriate shape of pasta for the sauce (not every pasta shape is meant to go with every sauce)
II. Thou shalt use 1 litre of water and 10 grams of salt per 100 grams of pasta (the salt is drained away with the water)
III. Thou shalt not add oil to the cooking water (possible exceptions include par cooking lasagne sheets)
IV. Thou shalt cook pasta until “al dente” for dried pasta or “a punto” for fresh pasta so that it is firm and elastic and is not soft, waterlogged or falling apart.
V. Thou shalt drain the pasta as soon as it is cooked to the desired texture and dress it immediately
VI. Thou shalt not rinse cooked pasta in cold water (pasta salad is a possible exception but there is a special technique)
VII. Thou shalt not add oil to the cooked pasta unless it is part of the sauce
VIII. Thou shalt not precook or reheat pasta
IX. Thou shalt not dress pasta with too much sauce or watered down sauce
X. Thou shalt eat pasta as soon as it is cooked (do not let it sit in the colander, heated tray, or bowls). “You wait for pasta. Pasta does not wait for you.”
There is also the “incident”, which took place at my house during a play date. A little friend who came to play asked for ketchup on his pasta and the Italians present recoiled in horror and then nearly cried. They immediately took to their mobiles to tell everyone they knew about it. Needless to say, I couldn’t bring myself to acquiesce. Ketchup and pasta must never be a “thing”. Nor should pasta be served on pizza or with chips/french fries.
Now here is an all time favourite pasta dish that everyone can agree on: lobster spaghetti. Some like it without tomato, some with. We are in the “with” camp. I hope you enjoy it…..al dente and without ketchup.
Linguine all’aragosta (lobster spaghetti)
20 mls extra-virgin olive oil
180 mls white wine
650 mls tomato passata
10 grams flat leaf parsley, rinsed, dried, leaves removed and finely chopped
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
In a large saute pan, fry the olive oil and shallots over medium heat until the shallots are soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the lobsters and the white wine and cook until the wine has reduced by two-thirds, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato passata and salt and pepper to taste and cook for about 12 minutes. During this time add the pasta to the boiling water for the time indicated on the packaging (i.e. if the linguine takes 9 minutes, 3 minutes after adding the passata, add the pasta to the water). Add the parsley and the pasta to the tomato sauce and mix together. Divide amongst 4 pasta bowls and serve.