Pasta, the queen ingredient of the Italian cuisine, appreciated all over the world, is a mixture of durum wheat flour and water, which is dried and cut into various shapes. It can also be produced with other grains or cereals, and eggs may be used instead of water. Therefore, pasta should be divided in two major categories: dried pasta (pasta secca) and fresh pasta (pasta fresca) prepared with type-00 flour and eggs. The eggs enhance the yellow color and improve the elasticity (especially necessary for long pasta shapes such as tagliatelle), and they reduce the stickiness, too (for my fresh homemade pasta recipe click on http://passionandcooking.wordpress.com/?s=lasagne+alla+bolognese&submit=Search). Most dried pasta is made industrially in large quantities, but a few artisanal producers still make it the way it was produced in the past. This method uses the bronze extrusion dies (perforated plates for shaping), and the pasta is dried slowly at low temperatures. Consequently, artisanal pasta has a rough and porous texture which sauces can cling to better, and it usually “mantiene bene la cottura” (keeps its “al dente” texture longer). This method makes the Italian pasta something unique, differing in quality and taste from pasta produced in other ways and in other countries. The quality of the ingredients, the methods of production, the variety of formats and the countless tasty sauces available make our pasta something that we Italians are very proud of. It is important to pair the ‘right’ pasta shape with the ‘right’ sauce. For this purpose, I would suggest grouping pasta shapes into five categories:
1. short pasta (penne, farfalle, fusilli, maccheroni, orecchiette, etc …)
2. long pasta (spaghetti, bucatini, linguine, noodles, angel hair, tagliatelle etc …)
3. filled pasta (tortellini, ravioli, cannelloni etc. ..)
5. pasta for soups (thimbles, bells, rings, etc …).
The main purpose of different pasta shapes is just to hold the sauce better, which also depends on the roughness of the dough. The pasta shapes differ greatly from north to south, and this is due to the different sauces prepared with the ingredients available in different climates. In the south, where the climate is warmer, olive oil and tomatoes, fresh vegetables, olives, capers and seafood are staples. The classic recipes are, for example, spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino, spaghetti puttanesca, spaghetti carbonara. In the north, however, where the climate is colder and more humid, cheese, butter and cream are frequently used to prepare the sauces (for example maccheroni with gorgonzola sauce, penne allo zafferano (for my saffron recipe, click on http://passionandcooking.wordpress.com/?s=pasta+allo+zafferano&submit=Search). Smooth sauces are fine for long pasta (like spaghetti) where the sauce flows around the noodles, while chunky sauces call for concave shaped pasta or one with holes (like penne, maccheroni). Certain short pasta (farfalle and fusilli) are also good to be served cold (like in pasta salad); it keeps its texture for a long time. Pasta dishes are served as a first course (primo), and the portions are small because the servings are often followed by a second course (secondo, which by itself might often be considered a full meal in other countries). Sauce should be served in equal amounts of pasta and should not smother the pasta.
HOW TO COOK PASTA
The cooking time depends both on the format and the type of pasta. It is usually 11-12 minutes for pasta secca, because the pasta needs to rehydrate, while the time is shorter for fresh pasta (for example, tagliatelle will take about 2 minutes, ravioli 3-4 minutes). For every 100 g of pasta (3.5 oz), you need 1 liter of water, and pasta should be cooked in a large pan, since the dough tends to stick during cooking in small pots. The normal portion per person is about 80-100 g (3 – 3.5 0z). The ratio of salt to water is very important. In general, you need 10 g (2 teaspoons) of salt for every liter of water. If the pasta sauce has a strong seasoning, the amount of salt should be reduced proportionately. It might be that no salt is necessary, for example, if the pasta is served with pesto, which can be quite salty by itself. The ideal time to add salt to water is after it starts boiling; if you add salt to the cold water, the time to boil will be longer. To prevent pasta from sticking add one or two tablespoons of oil to the water during cooking. Pasta should not be soft or mushy when it is served. Cooking should be “al dente” (literally translated as “to the tooth”), which means that the cooked dough should be firm and have a bit of resistance when you bite into it. Just halve your macaroni and view the inside: when the color is homogeneous your pasta is right al dente, instead when the inside is still white the pasta is not cooked enough. You should take into account that pasta will continue to cook for a while after it is drained. I would recommend to drain your pasta while it is still just slightly ‘underdone’ for your taste, making it perfectly al dente when you eat it. -Paola