Pasta has become one of those global dishes, with almost every country having their own twist on it. Indians have their red, white and pink sauces, the Egyptian koshari is a mish-mash of rice and macaroni among other things, and the Italian-American cultural intermingling during the turn of the last century has created classics like spaghetti and meatballs and macaroni and cheese. In this three-part series, we will go back to pasta’s roots and explore the rich variety of Italian pastas, ranging from the simple and minimalistic to the rich and decadent. Our main discussion on pasta sauces will be dealt with in the upcoming parts. This week, let us talk about the pasta itself.
Pasta in Italian means “paste”, as it is made using a dough of flour and water, often enriched with egg yolk. Egg-enriched pasta doughs use only a little water, relying mostly on the egg to bind the dough together, which lends it richness and a gorgeous yellow hue. It is at this stage that you can introduce elements like squid ink, mint or spinach to give the dough a characteristic colour and flavour.
The choice of flour is also crucial, and there are loads of articles by experts out there which compare some of the common varieties used, which include all-purpose, semolina, and the high-protein, finely milled flour called 00 flour. Durum wheat is a particular variety of hard wheat ideal for making coarse-grained semolina for pasta. Check out this amazing article by serious eats which delves into the science of fresh pasta and also provides instructions about how to make your own at home.
Commercial dried pasta contains no egg. It is a simple mixture of semolina and water, and the familiar yellow hue is due to the durum wheat which is naturally yellow.. The stiff mixture is extruded through moulds which produce shapes of various kinds, from thin spaghetti to tube or quill-shaped penne, from the spiral fusilli to the curious ear-shaped oriechette. There is an incredible variety of pasta shapes, and some are more suited for particular sauces than others.
Contrary to popular belief, fresh pasta is not inherently superior to dried pasta. In fact, both of them have their own unique applications, and using the wrong kind can actually break the dish. Silky, delicate sheets of fresh pasta are perfect for creamy, dairy based sauces, but will be overpowered when paired with a heavy, chunky sauce.
And that is where dried pasta comes in. It has a lot more body as compared to fresh pasta and can stand up to a heavier meat-based sauce. It is the pasta of choice in applications where a lot of stirring is needed to bring out the starch in pasta for thickening the sauce, as in cacio e pepe (more on that later). And what’s more, dried pasta lasts practically forever if stored properly.
Dried pasta is perfect for applications like minestrone, the iconic Italian soup made with a variety of veggies like beans, carrots, onions and tomatoes, with the addition of meat, pasta and often rice. Pasta fagioli is a rich and hearty stew of pasta and beans. Both these dishes use small, dried pasta which adds body to the dish. A hearty bowl of minestrone or pasta fagioli is Italian comfort food at its very best.
There is one application where fresh pasta is obviously mandatory, and that is the realm of the stuffed pastas. There is a huge variety of stuffed pastas out there, from the discs of ravioli to the dainty parcels of tortellini. Classic fillings for ravioli include a duo of ricotta and spinach, and pumpkin. A pumpkin ravioli, served with a sage and brown butter sauce is hard to beat. Tortellini are much smaller, and can be served with a rich sauce or in a light broth or brodo.
Baked pastas, or pasta al forno, can use both dried and fresh varieties. Both fresh and dried lasagna sheets can be used to create layered marvels, interweaving it with a meat sauce, bechamel or white sauce and lots of cheese. Veggie versions of lasagna can also be made, showcasing roasted veggies in all its glory. Baked pasta can also used dried versions like penne to create rich delights laden with meat and cheese.
Filled and baked pastas are complicated affairs. Tortellini in particular need particular skill to put together, and a lasagna is a labour of love, with almost 4-5 components blending together in seamless harmony. The most common pasta dishes however, are much simpler. These dishes all involve cooking the fresh or dried pasta in salted water before adding it to a sauce.
Here are my three cardinal rules of cooking pasta. Firstly, fresh pasta requires lower cooking times than dried pasta and is less tolerant of the jostling around caused by a rolling boil, so adjust your temperature and timing accordingly. Cooked pasta is supposed to be al dente meaning it must still have some bite to it. Always cook dried pasta a couple of minutes less than the cooking time on the packet if you plan to cook it further in the sauce later on, to avoid it from becoming overcooked and mushy.
Secondly, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, always salt the water before adding the pasta. Pasta, especially dried ones, absorb the water it’s cooked in, and using unseasoned water results in bland pasta which no amount of salt in the sauce can make up for later. I’ve learnt this the hard way, so trust me on this.
The common consensus is that pasta water should taste like seawater. The pasta will absorb only a small amount with most of it going down the drain, so be generous with the salt. And thirdly, always reserve some of the pasta water before draining off the rest, as it is very rich in starch and works wonders in thickening the sauce.
In the next two articles, we will talk about ten classic Italian pasta dishes. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it does give us an idea of the astounding variety on offer. So do join me as we explore ten dishes that collectively capture the range and versatility of the incredibly rich world of Italian pasta.