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Random thoughts on pasta

Discussion in 'Cookery' started by modelmaker, Feb 12, 2011.

  1. modelmaker

    modelmaker Occasional commenter

    We had meat balls with tagliatelli this evening with home-made tomato sauce and a blue cheese sauce on top. As I cooked it I pondered whether I ever noticed the dried pasta was so inferior to the fresh pasta we occasionally buy at greater expense, and further, why fresh pasta appears only to be available in spagetti, tagliatelli or similar forms. I can't say I've ever seen fresh pasta shells or the other shapes it comes in dried.
    Then I thought it's something celebrity chefs rave over that we should make ourselves, but I've never done. Do you make your own pasta? Is it noticably better than the bought stuff? I have to confess, that if you say yes, and tempt me to buy a pasta machine I'd probably be doing something to the mix in a vain attempt to take it to a higher level.
    Is pasta better enjoyed in Itali? Certainly, when I visited Rome a year or so ago and was given a dish of simple pasta in arrabiata sauce to eat whilst I studied the menu I felt it was far superior to anything I've ever cooked myself or dined on elsewhere. To be frank, although I opted for veal from the menu as my main course, mostly as it's virtually impossible to get in the UK, I'd have happily had another plate of the appetiser instead.
    My mother wasn't fond of pasta and it never featured in any of the dishes she cooked. I can hear her words now ringing in my ears "I'll come to this restaurant with you, but I don't want any of that macaroni stuff." She was an excellent cook herself ,albeit her specialty was traditional British food but I'm not sure she enjoyed the pleasures of dining as we have become accustomed to. I once took her to an excellent fish restaurant in Whitstable where the decor was intentionally basic. By this, I mean no carpets, gaps in the floorboards so you had a glimpse of the tanks in the cellar below where they grew oysters, plain wooden tables and chairs and dim lighting. Sadly, she didn't particularly enjoy the experience, complaining on the way home she liked to see what she was eating. Fortunately the clams and pasta dish they excel in wasn't on special that evening. But I digress...
    Nowadays, pasta features regularly on the menu in most people's homes in one form or another, yet as I've intimated, I don't think the British know enough about it yet. What do we need to know? what are the essentials, other than not over-cooking it?
  2. lapinrose

    lapinrose Lead commenter

    Yes, I make pasta and taught year 9 to make pasta at school last year. They were very inspired by a short film on the BBC, I'll try and post a link to it. Some of the boys were really inspired, one did a breakfast ravioli, filled with saudage bacon and beans, another did vampire pasta, black bat shaped pasta in a blood red tomato sauce, we even had a sweet chocolate pasta in a strawberry sauce.

    Basically the pasta shape determines which sauce should be served with it. I will dig around to find my teaching notes and post more information.

  3. nick909

    nick909 Star commenter

    I think it’s important to understand that dried pasta is different to fresh, and has different uses. Neither is better than the other, they simply suit different purposes. To put it in rather simple terms – dried pasta suits oily sauces and dressings whereas the more absorbent fresh pasta suits cream or butter based sauces. Fresh pasta dressed in oily sauces will soak up the oil and become greasy and heavy. This is possibly why the shell type pastas which suit oily, tomato based sauces aren’t usually available in ‘fresh’ form.
    As lapin states, different pasta suits different sauces. For most Italians, these are non-negotiable. In a recipe for the Roman dish, Spaghetti Al’Aglio in Marcella Hazan’s excellent Essentials of Italian Cookery she states, quite wonderfully I think, that an Italian “would no more expect this dish to be served with a different type of pasta than they would expect the Moon to change its course”. We Brits aren’t as fixated on this and will happily mix and match to our hearts’ content…again an average Italian would think it hilarious that we often serve a meat ragu with spaghetti in our Anglicised Bolognese mid-week staple, and would always serve such a sauce with either a flat ribbon pasta such as tagliatelle or a tube such as penne.
    We Brits make other howlers though, as well as choosing the wrong type and overcooking it. Most of us don’t salt the cooking water well enough. Most of us don’t use enough water to cook it in, resulting in slimy, starchy pasta. The main mistake we make in Italians’ eyes though, is the quantity of sauce we use. We seem to make a main event of the sauce, whereas in Italy, the pasta is usually the main event. The sauce is used as a dressing for the pasta, which if it’s good quality, will taste wonderful in itself. They’d never think of pouring half-a-pint of tomato sauce or similar all over pasta. I think this is why supermarkets here are often full of cheap brands of pasta, that taste of nothing and have no texture – it’s because most Brits will cook it to mush and drown it with sauce anyway. I always buy the best pasta I can afford. De Cecco is an affordable but excellent brand, but there are lots of even better brands out there.
    Most Italians, day-in-day-out, will use dried pasta as it’s quicker and easier. Celebrations and special occasions though will call for fresh. I must admit I was unconvinced of the true value of fresh pasta until I made my own. I’ve owned a pasta machine for about 10 years or so, but a few botched attempts saw it consigned to the back of the cupboard for a 9 years until I decided to have another bash at it last year after having returned from our Honeymoon to New York where we’d eaten at an incredible, Michelin starred Italian restaurant, wishing to recreate the stunning pasta dishes we ate there, having bought the cookbook by the chef who owns it.
    The results were sensational, and as such, all subsequent dishes made with our own fresh pasta have been as well. Whilst making your own tagliatelle/pappardelle etc can be highly fulfilling, it is when making filled pasta that it really becomes something exquisite. When you roll the pasta carefully on the thinnest setting, resulting in pasta that is almost transparent, and fill with something, cooking and dressing simply, it becomes something of beauty. Both of the dishes we re-created from our holiday were incredible – one being stuffed ravioli of slow-braised ox-cheek served in a squab liver sauce, the other being chicken and pancetta tortellini cooked and served in chicken broth. It’s simply not possible to buy fresh pasta, filled or unfilled, that is as good as the pasta you’ll make at home. It does need a lot of practice though, and initially a lot of time as well. Devote an afternoon to making filled pasta though, perhaps with a play or a rugby match on the radio, and you’ll be rewarded. Home-made pasta freezes also freezes, so your efforts can happily provide for further meals, so making it more time-efficient.
    For an absolutely comprehensive read about pasta, plus other aspects of Italian cookery, I heartily recommend this book:
    It’s partly an account of the author’s trials in the kitchens of the restaurant I’ve mentioned about, but mainly an obsessive, exhaustive piece of research into the history of pasta and Italian food and cookery. It’s a fabulously written book, very funny and informative.
    As well as Marcella Hazan’s books, you might also look into Anna Del Conte’s books, as well as the eponymous Silver Spoon.
    The cookbook I mentioned above, that we bought after visiting the restaurant in New York is this:
    All of the food in there is sensational, as well as the pasta.
    Finally, if you ever finds yourself in New York, you would do well to visit the restaurant. Without a doubt the best Italian food I’ve ever tasted. Be prepared to book a month in advance though, or do what we did and get a cancellation on the day!

  4. nick909

    nick909 Star commenter

    Apologies for the numerous grammatical howlers in that lengthy sprawl - early morning, insomnia-inspired waffling!
  5. You've said everything I was going to say nick....... I would only add that I make my own pasta but only for ravioli and tortelloni. For everything else I use a good quality dried pasta. I only put a little sauce on the pasta, if it is good quality I like to be able to taste it. In fact my favourite of all is just with olive oil and parmesan. (Hmmm, why am I the size I am....) sometimes, veeeeeery occasionally, with slices of fried aubergine on the top. Drool.

  6. BelleDuJour

    BelleDuJour Star commenter

    I make my own when entertaining. Otherwise I use driend pasta unless I am making carbonara when only fresh spaghetti will do.
    BTW I get mad when I see jars of 'carbonara' sauce! It's not something you can put in a jar [​IMG]
  7. lapinrose

    lapinrose Lead commenter

    Me too, who wants that modified carbohydrate muck!!
  8. anon468

    anon468 New commenter

    Wow, thanks for that, nick - really interesting and fascinating post!

  9. Thanks, Nick! That was really interesting! I love pasta but have never made my own. And I've realised I don't know how to cook it properly, and use too much sauce. Maybe I should buy more expensive brands of pasta and then I won't need so much sauce. I do find it makes me feel bloated though, could that be due to the quality of the pasta or a wheat/gluten intolerance? I have bought some wheat/gluten free pasta at great expense to see if there is a difference!!
  10. impis

    impis New commenter

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