You immediately think “Italy” when you hear it. When you taste it, you don’t always taste Italy. Let me share a few pasta preparation tips, direct from the land of the true pasta professionisti.
Step uno. Boil water (duh). Don’t watch it – it takes longer that way. 🙂 One benefit to moving from Canada to Italy is moving from electric stoves to gas stoves. Pasta water comes to a boil in record time with a gas stove top. WAIT until the water is actually boiling before you add salt, or you’ll just be waiting longer. Salted water takes longer to get to boiling point.
Italians, especially as you go further south, will tell you to make the water “salty like the Mediterranean.” I wouldn’t say I’ve gone that salty, but I’ve upgraded from a mere pinch to a substantial scoop with my fingers! Please, also, use sea salt. Obviously if you want it to taste like the sea, as they say here in Italy, then you use sea salt. But you also want to do your body a favour and avoid that iodized poison that is table salt.
Stir the pasta right after you’ve put it in the pot for a good minute or two. Stir it a couple more times as it’s cooking too. This is to distribute that starch and prevent the pasta from sticking to the pot.
When you want to test the pasta for doneness, there’s no need to throw your pasta against the fridge, on your ceiling, or anywhere else in the kitchen but in the pot and your mouth, unless you just wanna have that kind of pasta party. Check it a minute or two before the indicated cooking time on the package. Do this simply by removing a piece from the pot and doing the traditional taste test for the texture you’re after. Here there is no al dente ‘preference.’ It’s really just al dente, meaning ‘with a bite,’ or no pasta for you. There’s no in-between times recommended on pasta packages like you see in North America. There is simply one number for how many minutes to cook the pasta for. Another reason you want to cook it to al dente is because you want to heat that pasta through in the sauce, where the noodles will absorb the sauce ingredients while cooking.
When you’re ready to drain the pasta, reserve about a half cup to a cup of the splendidly salty, starchy pasta water. Yep, this can be added to your sauce, or it can simply BE your sauce, with a couple added extras like a bit of butter, herbs, and freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese (I know it costs more, but it’s worth it). The pasta water will actually help to thicken what you dress it up with, since you’ve stirred that starch into it. If you’re having ravioli for example, a little pasta water, a couple of cubes of butter and a generous grating of parmigiano melted in, and some freshly chopped sage is a lovely pasta dish.
Add the pasta to the sauce you’ve been cooking up there beside the pot of pasta. Stir it around, on very low heat, just to harmonize the ingredients and heat it through.
*Note!* NO MEATBALLS. No, no, NO CHICKEN. You want meat? Eat it after, as a secondo. On a separate plate. Not in the pasta. Pasta is a primo piatto, a “first plate.” It is NOT a side dish. It is not something you serve “under” something, like a piece of meat. No garlic bread on the side either. I’ve never even seen garlic bread here. Opt for a bruschetta appy instead. I repeat – pasta is a solo performance – so you eat that bruschetta before the pasta! Back to the chicken subject: I hate to break it to you, but there is no chicken alfredo in Italy. If you just so happen to find it here, it will be found in a very unfortunate touristy restaurant. Sorry if I just rained on your pasta parade. Believe me, after you have legit pasta experiences, you’ll get over it.
A few examples/suggestions of acceptable ingredients to add to your pasta noodles:
- tomatoes, basil, parmagiano (when you prep all this on your cutting board, go ahead and play with your food for a moment and make the red, white and green Italian flag with it)
- prawns and zucchini with a pinch of hot pepper flakes, black pepper, squeeze of lemon and dash of extra virgin olive oil
- pistacchios, Pachino cherry tomatoes, and swordfish (I abhored swordfish before, and since trying it here, have embraced it)
- diced tomatoes and pancetta (easy on adding salt since the pancetta is already salty and you added a fair amount to your pasta water!)
- fresh chopped porcini (or other mushrooms), fresh chopped parsley,black pepper, extra virgin olive oil and fresh grated parmigiano cheese
All of the above except the fish-based pasta can have grated cheese on top. You won’t see Italians putting cheese on fish dishes. Relationships have been known to crumble over it.
The less, the better. That’s a mantra that is often used in Italy, because quality is key. Naturally this is a focal point in food culture. Italians frown upon the French for slathering everything in sauce, and us North Americans for thinking that we need a thousand spices in whatever dish we serve. Then again, I don’t always blame anglos for this. Things can be so tasteless in North America. Even the organic produce that I have bought – for top dollar – in Canada just doesn’t have the punch on my palatte the way the much less expensive but much more flavourful produce you find here in Italy. Take tomatoes for example. Cherry tomatoes here are like candy to me. But healthy. Can I get a double “oh-yeah.”
I adore that in Italy the tomato sauce is literally just that – tomatoes and salt. No added preservatives or whatever weird flavourings.
Garlic is not as prized in pasta as most may have come to believe about “authentic” Italian cuisine. Again, you’ll see it more in the south, but it’s not in EVERY pasta dish as one may think it is in Italy. My Italian husband actually asks me to leave out the garlic. Always. He doesn’t even want it in the pesto sauce. And since that’s not always fun, I’ll sometimes be sneaky and use just a little minced garlic, or I will crush a couple cloves and cook it in the olive oil for a half minute to give it a hint of garlic flavour. But it’s not like the “Italian restaurants” in America that load up the plates with garlic so much that you have to stand a mile away from each other at dessert if you want to talk over your tiramisu after dinner. Eeww.
Now, you’re ready to eat. DROP the spoon and the pasta doesn’t get hurt! And while you’re at it, don’t be setting that table with a knife to eat your pasta with either. Say it with me now – “forketta.” I’m the only one at the table who ever dirties a knife when I eating pasta at an Italian table. They just have mastered the skill of fork twirling, no second-hand assistance necessary. Working on that one like I’m working on rolling my “rrrrr”s.
Finally, before you eat anything in Italy, you must always say “buon appetito” to those sharing the table with you. This is just good manners.
So go have an Italian night with friends and let me know what you make! What’s your favourite pasta dish? Buon appetito!