When I was a child all pasta was called spaghetti or macaroni. The word pasta was a chic import in the newly food conscious 70s, just prior to discovering pesto sauce in the 80s. Spaghetti itself remains my favourite shape and paired with a garlicky sugo al Napoletano tomato sauce, is my death row meal, my desert island dish, my first culinary impulse after any illness, appetite regained, the food I long for in foreign climes and the first dinner I make on returning.
A Neopolitan tomato sauce with olive oil, onions, bay leaf, garlic and basil is from the poorer south of Italy, where meat is scarcer than in the north, rather than the meat based Bolognese from Bologna.
Spaghetti only goes with certain sauces, anything else is heresy. The best spaghetti is bronze die, when it is ‘extruded’ through a shaped template made of bronze which gives an irregular and rough surface texture, all the better to hold the sauce. Bronze die pasta hasn’t really taken off in Britain, although Jamie Oliver produced a range. It seems that people are not yet willing to pay that little bit extra for a quality pasta.
Most of the time I buy De Cecco or Barilla, as this is widely available in supermarkets. Italian chef Francesco Mazzei of L’Anima favours Cocco or Martelli.
Cooking time is another key issue: the French for instance, for all their culinary talent, invariably overcook pasta. American Barilla pasta has longer cooking times cited on the package than Italian Barilla. I’ve heard that southern Italians like their pasta even more al dente than northerners.
It’s difficult to cook spaghetti well in bulk. Bill Buford’s brilliant book Heat explains, in recounting his ‘stage’ at Mario Batali’s in New York, how restaurants cook pasta, and the importance of the pasta water. “In all these dishes was an ingredient you can’t get at home: the restaurant’s pasta water.”
There are three stages that the boiling water in the pasta pot goes through during service: 1) clear and very salty “Like the sea” 2) cloudy, becoming”an increasingly thick vehicle for soluble starch. …by the time the water reached this condition it behaved like a sauce thickener, binding the elements and, in effect flavouring the pasta with the flavour of itself….” and finally 3) muddy. The reader is advised never to order pasta after ten pm.
Buford is amazed that at home, we drain all that good pasta water away in a colander, rather than “using a pair of tongs and pulling the spaghetti straight out of the pot”.
Over the years a series of spaghetti myths has developed but…
- don’t put oil in the water,
- don’t break spaghetti
- don’t cut it
- don’t throw it against the wall to see if it’s cooked
- don’t rinse it for god’s sake, the starch helps the sauce adhere
- even dried pasta should be as fresh as possible
- only use freshly grated Parmesan
- only use freshly ground pepper
- don’t use Parmesan with fishy sauces
- pasta cools quickly so serve it on warmed plates
- use lots of water to boil it in
- salt the cooking water adequately, this means you need to salt the sauce less
- do not add sugar to your tomato sauce
Fennel and blood orange salad
Galette des rois
3 cheeses and biscuits £5 extra