Pasta

Pasta

By
From
Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery

Spaghetti caruso, rigatoni carbonara, vermicelli Napolitana, straw and grass, lasagne, cannelloni – the names conjure up pictures of steaming pasta of different shapes and sizes, each with its own delicious complementary sauce.

Pasta is as Italian as opera, and as varied. There are said to be about 400 different varieties of pasta, from the fine strands of vermicelli to the broad, flat lasagne and the giant pipes of cannelloni. Pasta comes in different shapes, too: small and large shells; cornetti, or elbow macaroni; and trivelle – shaped like a corkscrew. The long thin strands of spaghetti are an all-time favourite, but so too is bucatini (spaghetti with a hole in the middle); and there’s linguine (flat spaghetti) as well. Some pastas are eaten with a sauce, sometimes just with butter; others, like tortellini, are stuffed with meat or cheese, spices and herbs.

Sauces are important (see Pasta Sauces) – contrary to popular belief not all the sauces include tomato, but those that do are legion – the ragù alla Bolognese is, perhaps, the most famous. Also popular are the fresh tomato sauces that can be made in just a few minutes with fresh or tinned tomatoes. And tomato paste (a concentrated reduction of fresh tomatoes) is added to many sauces to enrich them and give them their lovely natural tomato flavour.

When buying pasta, go for quality. Look also for the pre-cooked varieties, especially cannelloni and lasagne, which eliminate one whole step – cooking the pasta in boiling water – which can be tricky with these shapes as they have a tendency to stick together. Pre-cooked spaghetti is a great boon: it takes only 6 minutes to boil, the strands stay separate and in that time you can make a simple tomato sauce, or simply serve the spaghetti with butter flavoured with a crushed clove of garlic and a grating of parmesan cheese – it’s delicious!

There are three main distinctions to be made with types of Italian pasta. One is called pasta fatta in casa, meaning fresh, home-made pasta; another is the mass-produced type, sold dried, in packets; and the third is the pasta made in the fresh-pasta shops that are now emerging. There is much to be said for all three, but if you have a light hand with pastry, it is well worth trying to make your own pasta. You may even invest in a pasta-making machine. The electric machines actually make the pasta, then roll it out and cut it into a variety of shapes, all done automatically. A great toy and, if you really love pasta, a joy.

Servings: 500 g pasta will serve 4 people as a main course, 6 people as a first course.

To cook: Use a large, deep pan with plenty of room for the pasta to cook without sticking. Allow 3.75 litres water for 250 g pasta. Add about 1 teaspoon salt for each litre of water, and have the water boiling vigorously before adding pasta. A teaspoon of olive oil may be added to water to help prevent pasta sticking together, a good tip, especially for large pasta like lasagne.

Drop pasta into water slowly so water does not go off the boil. Stir a few times at start of cooking to prevent pasta sticking, then allow to boil vigorously, uncovered. When cooked, pasta should be tender but still firm to the bite – al dente, as the Italians say, which means just firm enough to bite comfortably, but not so soft that it is mushy. Pasta is meant to be chewed. When cooked, remove pan immediately from heat and drain. Pour boiling water through pasta in a colander or sieve, then allow to drain again. Toss in hot sauce or melted butter and serve immediately.

Home-made pasta will not take as long to cook as the bought variety, but it is difficult to give exact times as they depend on the thickness of the dough and also the size and shape of the pasta.

Cooking times: There is a guide to cooking times on most packets, but it is best to start tasting and testing pasta, especially fresh pasta, as soon as it rises to the surface of the water. The following are approximate cooking times for dried packaged pasta.

Spaghetti: 12 minutes

Tagliatelle (long ribbon strips): 8 minutes

Vermicelli (long thin threads): 8–10 minutes

Cannelloni and lasagne (large pipes or squares): 12 minutes. Pre-cooked cannelloni and lasagne are available. Follow packet instructions.

To combine pasta and sauce: Place drained cooked pasta in a heated serving bowl, add part of the sauce (if desired, sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese). With 2 forks, or spaghetti tongs, toss gently until pasta is coated with sauce. Top with remaining sauce.

To keep pasta hot: It is best to serve pasta as soon as it is cooked. However, it can be kept hot for a short while. Return drained cooked pasta to the empty cooking pan, add about 60 g butter, then cover with a lid and keep warm.

Or drain pasta in a colander and set over a pan containing a small amount of simmering water. Coat pasta with 90 g (3 oz) butter (for 6 servings) to keep it from sticking together. Cover colander.

Ingredients

Quantity Ingredient
see method for ingredients

Method

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