Green, White and Red
Last time, we explored the basics of pasta, comparing dried and fresh varieties, with a brief look at the stuffed and baked pastas. This week, we start our exploration of ten classic pasta dishes. All of these involve cooking the pasta and adding it to a sauce. We’ve already talked about cooking pasta last time, so let’s move straight on to our first dish.
In Pasta 1, basil, the quintessential Italian herb, takes center stage. Pesto alla Genovese hails from Genoa, the capital of Liguria which lies in the North of Italy. It comprises fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts and one or more of aged cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano, traditionally pounded in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle and blended with olive oil.
With just five ingredients in the mix, each component needs to be of the best possible quality. Pesto is incredibly versatile and can be used served with a variety of pastas. Pesto’s versatility goes beyond pasta and and can be used in pizzas as a substitute for tomato sauce, as a sauce with antipasti, or as a marinade for veggies, chicken or seafood, although purists claim that using pesto in a pizza or as a marinade destroys its delicate flavours.
Cheese is a key component in a pesto, its richness counteracting the freshness of the basil and the pungency of the olive oil. Pasta 2 however, puts cheese in the limelight. One of the best examples of this category is the American macaroni and cheese, but since we are strictly sticking to traditional Italian pastas, let us travel to Rome, in central Italy, home of the fettuccine al burro, better known as Fettuccine Alfredo.
The dish is named after Alfredo di Lelio, who featured this dish in his restaurant in the early to mid-20th century. The dish was assembled tableside, like the Caesar salad from the 1920s and the Crepe Suzette from the 1890s. Tableside preparation does have an element of theatricality to it, and the fact that most tableside dishes are eponymous might be more than mere coincidence.
Cooked fettuccine is mixed with butter and grated Parmesan cheese. The mixing takes a few minutes, during which the butter and cheese emulsify to form a rich and silky sauce, and you end up with a luscious pasta dish to die for. The choice of pasta is important, too. Fettuccine is wider and sturdier than the dainty strands of spaghetti, which is necessary to stand up to the rich, creamy sauce.
The blank, creamy canvas of an Alfredo-like sauce is perfect for further additions like rapini or broccoli rabe, a bitter vegetable that looks like but is not related to the broccoli. It also provides an excellent background for tartufo or truffle to show its colours. A light drizzle of truffle oil and thin shavings of black truffle add yet another level of complexity to an already delicious dish.
Rome is home to another family of classic pasta dishes, all of which use the other iconic aged Italian cheese made sheep called Pecorino Romano. While Parmigiano uses cow milk, Pecorino uses sheep milk. The simplest of these pecorino-based pastas simply contains pasta, pecorino and fresh black pepper, called cacio e pepe.
Add to the mix some guanciale, a cut of meat from the jaw of the pig, and you’ve got pasta alla gricia. Guanciale is extremely fatty, which is why additional fat is usually not needed in a pasta alla gricia. Add to that a couple of egg yolks and you’ve got Pasta 3, arguably one of the most popular pasta dishes all over the world. It’s a carbonara, so called because it is believed to have been first made for Italian charcoal workers.
Spaghetti carbonara contains spaghetti, guanciale, pecorino, egg yolk and black pepper. You could swap the guanciale for bacon, as the latter is a lot more readily available. The combination of cheese, guanciale and egg yolk makes it incredibly rich, accented with the porky flavours and the sharp note of fresh black pepper.
Both alfredo and carbonara are rich, creamy pastas, using neither tomatoes nor herbs. Yet surprisingly, classic versions of both recipes shun an apparently obvious ingredient, cream. Interestingly though, while most versions of carbonara to avoid cream or use very little of it, the American version of Alfredo has gone the other way, dousing the pasta with ungodly amounts of it.
This is a real shame. Cream adds nothing to either dish, since the butter, egg yolk, pork fat and aged cheeses, add enough richness on their own. On the contrary, cream mutes all the wonderful, subtle flavours these ingredients bring to the dishes, creating boring, monotonous versions with no depth of flavour whatsoever.
If instead of eggs you add crushed tomatoes to a pasta alla gricia, you end up with Pasta 5, the Amatriciana, named after a town in central Italy. Render the guanciale fat, add some white wine, cook it off and add the tomatoes, toss in the pasta and finish with a generous handful of Pecorino. The pasta of choice is bucatini, which is like a hollow spaghetti with a tube running through its length, perfect for holding on to the sauce.
Bucatini Amatriciana is the first tomato-based pasta we have encountered, and this would be a good point to focus a little bit on the tomato. As I’ve already mentioned in a previous article, it is really difficult to find good tomatoes in India, which is precisely why dishes like a caprese salad, which need the freshest tomatoes you can get your hands on, are bound to fail when local tomatoes are used.
Why all this hate for local produce? Well, think about all the uses of tomato in Indian cooking. No Indian dish uses the tomato for tomato’s sake. It is used primarily as a souring agent in curries, or sweetened with sugar in a chutney. Apart from a nice red colour and a decent hit of acidity, it has little to add to a dish.
And that does work in the Indian context, because the primary flavour in a butter chicken for example, comes not from the tomato from the mixture of spices. All the tomato does is lend the dish a gorgeous reddish-orange hue. In Italian cuisine, the tomato is used not merely as a source of colour and tang, but a definite flavour. In an Italian pasta dish with just 5-6 ingredients in it, each must be top-notch, and local tomatoes do not make the cut.
Thankfully, when it comes to pasta, there is a way around the problem. There are a lot of canned Italian tomatoes available today. They are of excellent quality, and you can buy them whole (with skins and seeds removed) or crushed. Of course, does not compare with fresh Italian tomatoes, but it is infinitely better compared with local Indian tomatoes. Expensive? Yes. Worth a buy? Definitely!
We’ve taken a trip across the Italian flag, starting from green, moving through white, and finally finishing on red. When it comes to tomato-based pasta sauces though, we’ve only just begun. Do join me next week as we complete our pasta odyssey with six more Italian classics.