by Kate Heyhoe
Despite the low-carb diets making headlines these days, I doubt seriously that pasta will ever be downgraded in popularity. But not all pastas are created equal, and one of the most complete, and personal, guides to the nuances of pasta is contained in the fun and fact-packed book, Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating: How to Choose the Best Bread, Cheeses, Olive Oil, Pasta, Chocolate, and Much More, by Ari Weinzweig. Here is an excerpt from the book, along with recipes to tempt even the most dedicated Atkins dieters off their routine.
Excerpted from: Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating: How to Choose the Best Bread, Cheeses, Olive Oil, Pasta, Chocolate, and Much More, by Ari Weinzweig.
"Nothing else, not opera or Renaissance art or Roman ruins or even pizza, so exemplifies Italy as pasta."
—Burton Anderson, Treasures of the Italian Table
Americans often approach pasta as little more than a convenient way to convey large quantities of sauce from plate to palate. But for serious Italian eaters, the point is the pasta as much as it is the sauce. Although few Americans know it, good pasta actually tastes good.
Perhaps the reason most of us don't think much about its flavor is that our culture has relatively little experience with this food. At the beginning of the twentieth century, American pasta consumption was so small that, per capita, it barely registered at all. By 1930 it was up to nearly four pounds per person per year. In the early 1980s, the amount had risen to more than eleven pounds a year. Today the average American consumes about twenty pounds each year, but we still have a long way to go to keep up with our Italian counterparts-we eat barely a third of what they do.
Italians divide pasta into two categories. One is pasta fresca, or "fresh pasta." Usually made at home or in the kitchens of quality-oriented restaurants, fresh pasta is made with flour and eggs. Many dishes rely on its softer texture and richer flavor. My focus is on what Italians call pasta secca, or "dried pasta": how to buy it, how to cook it, and best of all how to eat and enjoy it.
Back in the 1980s, when fresh pasta was all the rage in America, most folks falsely assumed that fresh and dried pastas were simply two different versions of the same thing. They are not. They serve two different purposes in Italian cooking, and you can rarely substitute one for the other.
Pastas Past: A Tangled but Tasty History
Though their prominence in North America is relatively recent, noodles are hardly a new form of nutrition. The ancient Hebrews ate them. The Chinese have been serving noodles since as early as the first century A.D.; by the tenth century, noodle shops were popular in much of the country. Nearly everyone knows the tale of Marco Polo, who supposedly brought pasta back to Italy from China at the end of the thirteenth century. The story has been largely discredited; in various forms, noodles seem to have shown up in Italy long before Mr. Polo's trip. It's likely that both Indians and Middle Easterners were also eating noodles extensively by the twelfth or thirteenth century. The inventory of a Genoese merchant made in 1279 shows stocks of macaroni. By the start of the fifteenth century, dried pasta, usually then referred to as "vermicelli," was commercially produced in Italy.
Pasta's enormous popularity in Italy dates to the early eighteenth century, when new machines made even wider commercial production possible. Naples became the main source of pasta in the modern era. The all- important hard durum wheat was well suited to the soil, and daily cycles of hot mountain winds alternating with milder sea air created an ideal climate for drying the pasta. By the end of the century, the number of pasta-making shops in the town had grown nearly fivefold.
Dried pasta was at that time eaten primarily by the Italian upper class. Much like coffee or chocolate, dried pasta was a manufactured item, which meant that it had to be paid for in cash and was hence too costly for everyday eating. For the most part, noodles were eaten for dessert.
British travelers brought pasta back home from Naples, and from there it made its way to North America. Thomas Jefferson is said to have shipped Neapolitan pasta back to Virginia in 1789. A year earlier a Frenchman opened a pasta factory in Philadelphia. Although there were hardly any Italians in the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by 1910 there were nearly 4 million. As their population grew, pasta making in America boomed. Italian- Americans still generally opted for the imported product because it was made from the harder, tastier durum wheat. Much American-made pasta started with inferior softer wheat, often deceptively colored yellow to give it the look of semolina.
Less Sauce, More Flavor
To grasp why Italians put so much emphasis on the flavor and texture of the pasta they put on their plates, it's important to understand that in Italy the serving ratio of sauce to pasta is far lower than in most of North America. Italians generally offer smaller servings, lightly tossed with a sauce or simply served with a dollop atop the noodles. By Italian standards, the sauce should accent, never overwhelm; no upstanding Italian chef would ever drown a pasta dish in sauce. With this guideline in mind, it only makes sense that the pasta itself has to have a flavor and character of its own.
Choosing Great Dried Pasta
The basic process for producing dried pasta is fairly simple. Flour and water are mixed into a dough, the dough is extruded through metal dies to create a multitude of shapes and sizes, and the freshly pressed pasta is then dried to preserve it. Finally the pasta is packed and shipped for sale. But while the basic recipe is consistent, there are drastic differences in quality from one noodle to the next. How can you tell which ones are at the top of the market and which are only at entry level? There are three key indicators.
1. Better Pasta Tastes Better
I'm not talking about the finished dish, just the noodles, au naturel, in the nude. A good pasta should be able to stand out with only a little olive oil or butter, and maybe a light sprinkling of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
2. The Importance of Texture
Texture is another piece of the pasta puzzle; the integrity of the noodle after it's been cooked is critical. Poor-quality pastas can literally fall apart in the pot; turn your back and they turn soft and mushy in a matter of minutes. Well- made macaroni, on the other hand, is supposed to have texture; when you take a bite, you should know you're eating something significant.
The difference is evident as soon as you open the box or bag and lay your hands on the raw pasta inside the package. Grab a fistful of commercial spaghetti. It's shiny, slick, and as straight as a set of plastic pick-up sticks. Or feel a bit of mass-produced elbow macaroni. It's lightweight, brittle. The stuff seems ready to shatter at the touch.
Now heft a handful of top-grade pasta made by an artisan producer. It's solid. Heavier. More substantial. Its surface is rough, like a set of sun-washed and wind-worn seashells gathered on the beach.
3. Better Pasta Smells Better
Aroma is the third essential element in distinguishing excellent pasta from run-of-the-mill. And when you drop a handful of top-notch noodles into boiling water, they release an enticing whiff of wheat. No, it's not overpowering, but it's definitely there. In fact, if you go into a small pasta plant, the first thing you're likely to notice is the smell of the grain. It's a lot like the scent of a good bakery. The air is warm and humid, perfumed with the aroma of milled wheat.
Grain, Not Flour
You may have noticed that in proper pasta parlance, Italians always refer to "grain," never to "flour." Don't dismiss this distinction as merely semantic—Italian pasta makers are adamant about it.
I once made the mistake of using the two terms interchangeably. Speaking to a third-generation maker of traditional pasta, I inquired about the source of the flour he was working with. He immediately gave me a look of deep disgust, as if I'd suggested we sit down to a bowl of Spaghetti-Os.
"It's not flour. It's grain!" he corrected me sternly. "Watch." He grabbed the arm of his unsuspecting salesperson and pulled him closer. Cutting open a paper sack of yellow semolina, the pasta maker pulled out a fistful and then proceeded to smear it all over the sleeve of the guy's powder blue suit. I stood there stunned, feeling guilty for ruining the poor fellow's outfit. Flour-far more finely milled would have quickly embedded itself in the cloth. But the pasta maker smiled and, holding firm to the man's arm, brushed it off easily. Since milled semolina is granular in structure, like sugar, only minimal markings were left as the grain fell to the floor.
"See?" he said questioningly. "S�," I replied with a smile. Lesson learned.
Simple Steps to Proper Pasta Cooking
Proper cooking technique is as imperative as proper purchasing of the raw materials. To cook the best dried pastas:
1. Bring lots of cold water to a boil. The emphasis is on lots. You want to have plenty of room for the pasta to move around in the pot, reducing the risk of sticking, and plenty of water for the dried noodles to absorb. Using enough water also ensures that the pasta won't cool off your cooking liquid. Start with at least a gallon, even for only a small portion of pasta. For a pound of dried pasta, give yourself a good 6 to 7 quarts of water.
2. When the water has come to a rapid boil, add a tablespoon or two of sea salt, which unlocks the flavor of the grain.
3. Add the pasta to the rapidly boiling salted water. When I was a kid, we always broke up long cuts of pasta into more manageable lengths, but Italians almost never do (though there are regional exceptions to this rule). Simply add the pasta as is, then stir well to make sure the strands don't stick to one another or to the bottom of the pot.
4. If you've got a good amount of water and a high source of heat, your cooking water should come back to the boil quickly. Remember, the water should be actively boiling, not just simmering. To avoid sticking and to ensure even cooking, keep stirring every now and again.
5. Test the pasta. The better the quality of the pasta, the more reason not to overcook it. Properly cooked pasta is done when it is al dente, tender on the outside, slightly firm on the inside. Generally, better-quality pastas are a bit more forgiving to the careless cook. Inferior products can go from raw to ridiculously overcooked in just a couple of minutes. My experience is that the top pastas are best when they're nicely firm (not raw, mind you) in the middle. Take note that in general, Italians prefer their pasta far firmer than we do in the United States.
Pastas made from harder wheat will take longer to cook than soft- wheat pastas. Similarly, those that were dried slowly will usually require more cooking time than those dried quickly and at higher heat. Don't adhere blindly to cooking times on packages. Depending on the quantity of water, the particular batch of pasta, and the strength of the heat source, actual cooking times will vary. So keep taking out a piece or two of pasta and tasting to check for doneness.
6. As soon as the pasta is done, get it out of the cooking water as quickly as possible. Don't dally. Most American cooks drain through a colander. Make sure your sink and drain are free of unwanted debris, and if your drain is slow, be ready to lift the colander out of the sink quickly. Alternatively, Italians use pasta tongs, which help keep long pastas from tangling. Pasta pots that come with colander inserts offer the best of both worlds, allowing you to remove the pasta all at once while avoiding tangling.
If you're serving the pasta hot, never, never rinse it with water. Instead, moving as quickly as possible, transfer the pasta to pre-warmed plates or bowls, and dress with sauce. Serve ASAP-the sooner you get the plates to the table, the better.
Note: Remember that portions in Italy-where pasta is often followed by a main course of meat or fish-are smaller than those we've become accustomed to in the States. An Italian serving starts with about two ounces of dried pasta; an American main course would call for three to four ounces.
Two Bonus Tips on Cooking Pasta, From a Pro
Faith Willinger, a woman who's done as much as anyone to advance the cause of great Italian food, shared these tips with me.
1. Add a touch of the pasta cooking water to your sauce. The pasta water is filled with the natural starch from the pasta and will help to bind and thicken the sauce naturally.
2. Finish your pasta in the sauce. Instead of waiting until the pasta is al dente, remove it from the cooking liquid a minute or two early. Toss the slightly underdone pasta with the simmering sauce, then cook for another minute or two, stirring regularly to avoid sticking. Since the pasta is still absorbing moisture, it will pull in the sauce (and hence its flavors). The result is a much better integration of pasta and sauce.
Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating
How to Choose the Best Bread, Cheeses, Olive Oil, Pasta,
Chocolate, and Much More
by Ari Weinzweig
Paperback; 512 pages
ISBN: 0395926165; $19.95
Hardcover; 512 pages
ISBN: 0618411089, $35.00
Recipe reprinted by permission.
Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating
Copyright © 2004, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created March 2004