Pasta, rice & couscous

Pasta, rice & couscous

By
Katie & Giancarlo Caldesi
Contains
21 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781784880514

Pasta is a feeling as well as a fuel. Few plates are more eagerly awaited and satisfying than a bowl of hot pasta. You know how you are going to feel afterwards.

Pasta made from flour is a blend of protein and carbohydrate and, with the addition of a sauce containing protein such as a ragu, it will sustain you for a good few hours. Just remember, in Italy they serve small portions as it is eaten as a starter. Giancarlo and our son Giorgio were devastated when they were told they could no longer eat foods with gluten, but now we have found good brands of gluten-free dried pasta and we make our own fresh pasta, so life has pretty much returned to normal.

Wheat was grown in Sicily before the Arab invasion. In fact, pasta was first introduced to Italy by the Arabs at the beginning of the 12th century, long before Marco Polo travelled to the East, which blows the myth that he brought the idea back to Venice. The term ‘maccheroni’ probably comes from the Sicilian word ‘maccarruna’, and it referred to short tubular pasta.

The first tomato sauce recipe dates from the late 18th century – a 1790 cookbook, L’Apicio Moderno. Before tomato sauce was added, pasta was eaten dry with the fingers. It was the liquid sauce that demanded the use of a fork.

Dried pasta and cooking instructions

Sicily exported huge amounts of dried pasta during the early Middle Ages. It is still mainly dried pasta that is eaten on the island rather than fresh. Dried pasta, these days, is extruded through metal dies, which means it is less absorbent than fresh pasta and is ideally suited to wetter sauces such as the Romanesco sauce or the Alla Norma sauce.

To serve 4 as a main course or 6 as a starter use 320 g pasta.

Cook the pasta in a large saucepan of salted boiling water according to the packet instructions until al dente. Always add the pasta to the sauce, which should be warmed through in a large frying pan. Toss to combine. The exception to this is when using an uncooked sauce such as pesto, which can be stirred through hot pasta in a bowl.

Rice

There is an ancient history to rice production in Sicily. It was probably introduced there before the rest of Italy by the Arabs through the thriving trading port of Alexandria, where one of the entrances was named ‘Pepper Gate’ in recognition of the important trade in spices. Rice was written about in Roman times, but was used for medicinal purposes only. During my research our teacher friend Giuseppe Mazzarella sent me a very old Sicilian recipe called risu ca minnulata: the rice is cooked in almond milk with a little salt until tender and served with a sprinkling of ground almonds on top. It has a delicate but moreish flavour and was traditionally given to people when they were unwell. It is lovely and I think even better finished off with a swirl of honey.

The 9th century Arab scholar al-Asma’i said, ’White rice with melted butter and white sugar is not of this world’ – meaning that it surely came from paradise. Rice was originally a rare and exotic foodstuff, but gradually it became accessible to everyone.

Couscous

Couscous, or cuscus, is Arab-Sicilian cuisine and is found mainly on the western, the Arab, side of the island. There is a whole festival dedicated to it in San Vito Lo Capo at the end of summer, when chefs come from around the world to be judged on their vats of fluffy couscous and richly scented broths. Sicilian couscous is usually made with fish and contains bay leaves, whereas the typically North African couscous is made with lamb and spices, but these days there are many crossovers.

Couscous is made from the action of stirring and rolling semolina flour and water together with your hands in large dish called a mafaradda. I remember making it with an experienced friend of ours, Nonna Giovanna, who cooked her couscous in a couscoussière, an old yellow earthenware pot with small holes in the bottom and the lid, which sits over a pan of boiling broth. The lid was sealed up with a length of dough to prevent the steam from escaping, forcing it through the couscous instead.

The tiny pasta grains are steamed for around 45 minutes. The broth can be made from fish or lamb and is filtered and used to pour over the couscous at the table. Normally the fish for the broth isn’t eaten, but the filtered broth can be used to cook filleted fish just before serving, which are then wonderfully tasty and can be spooned on top of the couscous. Since making couscous from scratch takes dedication, our recipes use precooked couscous instead, which simply needs to be revived in hot stock for 5 minutes.

You can make twice the quantity of stock you need and freeze the rest for next time. This makes it quite quick to throw together and is good for entertaining. Nowadays you can buy maize couscous or use quinoa instead, which is good for a gluten-free diet.

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