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Pasta is no mere noodle; it requires a studious chef

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Pasta is no mere noodle; it requires a studious chef
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Nothing brings me down as swiftly as overcooking the pasta. I've done it often enough to take a recent stand: I vow to cook it correctly every single time, as I have come to detest overcooked pasta more than anything, even more than raw mushrooms or out-of-season melon.

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So I pick hot strands of spaghetti out of boiling clouds of water to taste them, ingesting my penitent share of undercooked pasta along the way. I'm probably being dramatic: my life will go on if I boil it a few minutes too long. But a simple dish of pasta can be an amazing dinner - if the pasta is right. It should yield to the bite but have some chew to it, should taste wheaty and perfectly delicious in its bare state, and heavenly when gilded with sauce.

The Italian cookbook authors I read are rabid on this issue. At first I ignored them - "yeah, yeah, overcooking the pasta is a sin, blah, blah" - but after eating it cooked correctly, I jumped on the bandwagon.

Listen to Marcella Hazan, the preeminent Venetian cookbook author, her voice ringing out across the canals: "It [pasta] should always offer some resistance to the bite. When it does not, pasta becomes leaden, it loses buoyancy and its ability to deliver briskly the flavors of the sauce."

She's kind of bossy, but also absolutely right.

Al dente pasta makes it seem like a perky, living thing that you're eating; overcooked pasta lounges too much, drops its sauce, slides off the plate. And I've also heard a number of times that overcooked pasta is harder to digest. It's an old Italian wives' tale that may have its match in science: a number of researchers are distributing this over the Internet, that overcooked pasta has a higher glycemic index, or contains a higher amount of sugar.

There are Italian tricks to pasta-cooking, and I'll share the ones I learned firsthand cooking professionally and secondhand, via Mario Batali on PBS.

First, use good pasta. All pasta tastes fine, but the cheaper mass-American brands go from cooked to overcooked in a nanosecond. The better pastas hold al dente better for some reason. I prefer the cheap imports in the plastic sleeves, which both local grocery stores carry.

Secondly, ignore the box when it tells you how many minutes to cook, because it's usually too long. After a few minutes, begin lifting strands and tasting, and then stand by the pot.

Thirdly, it helps to cook it in two stages. Drain the pasta when it's underdone, when you lift a strand and it folds in half but still feels too firm to the bite. Save the pasta water if you need to add moisture, because the pasta will finish cooking in the sauce. When you do this, the pasta not only cooks to the perfect bouncy tenderness, but it also absorbs the sauce and tastes better.

Both of these very simple recipes highlight the pasta itself and require just a couple of high-quality ingredients and less than 20 minutes of your time. They're so quick in fact that they are both filed in my "do I really have time to make dinner?" category.

Well, these take 15 minutes, from pot to plate.

And then there's the fourth rule: no waiting for the pasta. Once it's done, everyone must sit to eat it. I aid my own pasta punctuality by imagining a stern Italian lady gesturing over the pot with a big wooden spoon. She gets everyone to the table on time.

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

(with Pecorino Romano

and Black Pepper)

Serves four

1 pound spaghetti or linguine

1 and three-quarters cups finely grated pecorino romano cheese (5 ounces) + additional grated cheese for the table

One-half to 1 cup pasta water

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

One-eighth teaspoon salt + approximately 2-3 tablespoons salt for the pasta water

As you're bringing three quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, grate the cheese on the finest holes of a box grater. (Don't use pre-grated cheese for this one; the pieces are too large and won't melt.)

If you're using freshly crushed black pepper, which I recommend, crush the black pepper (about One and one-half teaspoons) in a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder, until coarsely crushed. Look at it closely. Too fine and it will be too spicy. Too coarse and it will catch in your throat. It should look like sand: some grains totally fine, some a bit chunkier.

When the water boils, add enough salt to make it taste like seawater - 2 to 3 tablespoons' worth. It sounds like a lot, but most of the sodium will be thrown out with the water, and the salted water will make the pasta taste much better.

Drain the pasta over a large serving bowl to catch the cooking water, and scoop out one cup. (This also warms the bowl.) Dump the rest of the water and add the drained pasta to the bowl. Quickly add most of the cheese, the oil, the butter and the black pepper. Dribble in one-half cup of pasta water and toss. You may want to add a pinch of salt - or not. Toss quickly to melt the cheese into the pasta water, adding more hot pasta water as needed. (Never add cold water to this; it will get gluey.) Serve immediately, from the bowl.

Gorgonzola Sauce

From Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan

Serves 6

One-half pound gorgonzola cheese (Maytag blue is a good substitute)

One-third cup milk

3 tablespoons butter

salt

One-half cup heavy whipping cream

One and one-fourth pounds pasta, such as penne or rigatoni

One-third cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, plus more for garnishing

Choose flameproof serving ware that can subsequently accommodate all the pasta. Put in the gorgonzola, milk, butter, and one or two pinches of salt, and turn on the heat to low. Stir with a wooden spoon, mashing the cheese with the back of the spoon and, as it begins to dissolve, incorporating it with the milk and butter. Cook for a minute or two until the sauce has a dense, creamy consistency. Take off the heat until the moment you are nearly ready to drain the pasta.

Boil the pasta in salted water.

Shortly before the pasta is cooked, add the heavy cream to the sauce and stir over medium-low heat until it is partly reduced. Add the cooked drained pasta and toss it with the sauce. Add the one-third cup grated parmesan and toss thoroughly to melt it. Serve immediately, directly from the pan, with additional grated cheese on the side.

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