The Perfect Pasta

While I prefer the taste and texture of fresh pasta (pasta fresca), I don’t feel bad if I have no time to make my own.  There are many great dried pasta (pasta secca) in the market now, and they work very well.  When looking for good quality pasta, be sure to purchase pasta that is made primarily of durum or semolina wheat.

The custom of fresh pasta comes from Northern Italy, where the land is more fertile, and eggs have been more plentiful and affordable. In general in the north, the pasta sauces often include butter, cream, and rich cheeses. In the south, dry pasta is more popular because eggs were less common and more expensive, and the hot climate was more ideal for drying pasta. In general in the south, the pasta sauces are made based on what is in season.

The fans of pasta called “pastaioli” say that pasta should always be cooked “al dente”.  These two little words hold the answer to the perfect pasta.  Even with the most sophisticated and tasty sauce, it will lose its appeal, if accompanied by overcooked pasta. There are a few rules in Italy that should be followed, if you want to achieve the perfect marriage of a good sauce with the perfect pasta:

 - Pasta should always be prepared just before serving it.   

- Use a large tall pot filled up to ¾ with water.  If there is too much water in the pan it could boil over. In a small pan, the pasta may stick during cooking.

 - The right time to add the salt is when the water reaches the boiling point. Salting the water brings out the natural flavor of the pasta. If the salt is added too late, it will not be absorbed correctly into the pasta. Be sure to allow the salt to dissolve before adding the pasta.

 - When adding the pasta to boiling water, stir the pasta gently until it is back to a boil. Do not cover the pan, and continue stirring the pasta every few minutes.

- DO NOT add oil to the boiling pasta.  Even when adding oil, a bad quality pasta, when not stirred properly will stick. Adding oil adds nothing to the taste of pasta.

- Following the cooking directions on the package is the best way to cook pasta.  However, you must taste the pasta before it is drained to make sure it is good enough for your taste. Pasta is cooked properly when the outside is softer than the inside.

- Drain the pasta right after it is done, and toss gently to remove extra water.  The pasta should still be moist but not drip water.  DO NOT rinse the pasta.  This is a common question in my cooking classes. When pasta is rinsed, it washes away the natural starches that are flavorful and necessary to have the perfect marriage with the sauce.

- Add the sauce to the cooked pasta immediately and serve. Pasta should always be served hot.  Add enough sauce to coat the entire pasta first.  If you want more sauce, add more on top of the individual plates. 

 - Fresh topping can be added to the pasta dish, once it is plated.  Toppings include freshly ground pepper, grated Parmesan or pecorino cheeses, or fresh basil or parsley.  In some cases, a little drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is the perfect little extra.

It is considered appropriate, in Italy, to eat pasta with only a fork, not a fork and a spoon. If possible, serve warm pasta in warm, shallow bowls instead of on dinner plates. The sides of the bowl make it easier to turn the pasta on the fork.  

Before the fork, people ate spaghetti with their hand. When the fork was invented, pasta became food fit for royalty as well, because they could now eat it without a loss of dignity. The Italians say that a character of a man can be determined by the way he eats spaghetti.

Whether you eat dry or fresh pasta, with a fork or with a fork and spoon, remember to follow all or some of the rules to make your perfect pasta and become a pastaiolo or a pastaiola.


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