Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Beauty of Pasta (or Tomato-Basil Spaghetti)

Being Italian on my mother's side, I must have eaten tons of pasta in the last 27 years. I know I am not the only pasta-lover out there, as recent surveys say they are the most popular food item on the planet! So I am going to indulge in a little rave about how awesome pastas are.

For a couple of years, as a broke musician with a tiny kitchen, I wouldn't have gotten very far without dry pasta. They are inexpensive (the recipe below costs about 5 bucks of basic ingredients and serves 2 generous helpings!), very easy to prepare and can be served in an infinite number of ways. People who think pastas are boring really lack imagination (if you know them, redirect them to this blog immediately). Pastas are like a blank canvas, and it's up to the spoon-holder to chose how simple or elaborate the final master-piece will be. In fact, they are a great way to practice cooking creativity without making too much of a mess. You can whip up something as simple as the following tomato-basil spaghetti for a movie-night in, or serve something as elegant as a spaghetti con calamari without breaking a sweat, and fooling friends and family into thinking you are a spectacular chef.

There are a few basic rules to follow if you want to cook great pasta. First off, pick good-quality pasta. Most grocery stores stock decent enough stuff, so stay away from Catelli. If you are stuck in a no-man's-land, try gourmet groceries, or hit Little Italy and stock up. Dry pastas don't go bad, so you won't be wasting it. My personal favorite brand is Giovanni Panzani, but anything that is imported from Italy usually does the trick.

Bring a large (as in big enough to swirl your pasta around freely) pot of water to a boil. When you get nice big bubbles, throw in a small handful of coarse sea salt (about as much salt as you'd put in the equivalent quantity of soup). The bubbles will get crazy from that salty action; it's time to add the pasta. Make sure they are submerged, and stir from time to time with a pasta spoon (a slotted spoon with teeth; best thing for strings like spaghetti, cappelini or tagliatelle). You'll need to leave them for 5 to 10 minutes in the water, depending on the type of pasta, to get them al dente. You want them to soften, but with a bit of a firmness to the bite. If they fall apart, your plate will be a gooey mess, and that's just not appetizing. If you add them to a sauce, you can even under-cook them slightly, and the heat from the sauce will finish the cooking. Drain them in a colander and save a bit of the cooking water in case the pastas need to be loosened up later.

Many people add a few drops of oil to the water so it doesn't stick, but I find that a bit silly. Well-looked after pasta simply doesn't stick. Give them a gentle stir from time to time, scraping the bottom of the pot and everything will be peachy.

I cannot go for more than a few days without pasta, so I am constantly looking for new ways to serve them, but this is my favorite lazy pasta: I love it on Friday evenings, when I am tired and hungry... with a big glass of red wine as a side-dish. You'll find a few variations (inspired by the ones in Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution") that are just as simple and delicious as the basic sauce. Each version takes about 15 to 20 minutes to get on the table if you time your pasta cooking properly, which is good news for the hungry. Serves 2 ravenous eaters, or 4 people if you serve it with a salad or as a side-dish to a grilled piece of meat or fish.

2 cloves of garlic
1/2 fresh red chile
a small bunch of fresh basil
1 (14 ounce) can of diced tomatoes
sea salt and ground pepper
1 bag of dry spaghetti
olive oil
Parmesan cheese

Peel and slice the garlic. Finely slice the chile. Pick the basil leaves off the stalks and reserve. Finely chop the basil stalks. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the spaghetti and cook according to package instruction, until al dente. While the water is heating, put a large sauce pan on medium heat and add 2 glugs of olive oil. Add the garlic, chile, basil stalks and stir. When the garlic begins to brown lightly, add the diced tomatoes and the basil leaves. Stir for a minute or two, and season with salt and pepper. Drain the spaghetti in a colander, then transfer the pasta to the sauce pan and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Divide in pasta bowls, sprinkle with Parmesan and garnish with fresh basil leaves.

So absurdly simple and soooooo good and deeply satisfying.

You can also do the following:
- add and handful of baby spinach leaves to the sauce when you add the pasta; when the leaves have wilted, remove from the heat, and serve with crumbled goat cheese sprinkled on top
- add a few handfuls of cooked shrimps and chopped arugula and the juice of 1/2 lemon
- add a can of tuna, drained and flaked, into the sauce with 1/2 a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, some pitted black olives and the juice of 1/2 lemon

After trying a few of those, you will look at jarred pasta sauces at the grocery store and wonder why anyone would want to buy them. That easy and that tasty.

Now, I know pastas have a bad rep as fattening food. I can't deny that they are a source of carbs, like any other bread product out there. But they contain very little fat, and if you eat them with a sauce containing meat and veggies, it's a pretty complete meal. The trick to enjoying pasta is like with any other carbohydrate-rich food: be reasonable in regards to portion size, and don't eat it every day. Also remember that the more active you are, the more your body needs those carbs to stay properly fueled. Carbs, just like fat and sugar, are things your body needs despite being demonized by various skinny freaks; just don't go overboard with the quantities, and you'll be fine. Moderation is the key. If you are paranoid about your weight/health, buy whole-wheat dry pasta instead of the regular white flour pasta, or try making your own pasta dough (recipe to come as soon as I've given it a try)! Also beware of oily and cheesy sauces (Alfredo sauce, for example, is nothing but delicious fatness; for special occasions only), and you'll be able to enjoy them as much as those high-metabolism bastards out there...

Of course, my mamma, my zias and my nonna would all shake their heads at this sort of talk, put a huge plate of tortellinis in front of you and say: "Eat, eat! You're so skinny! How are we going to marry you?". What they mean is basically: "go on, live a little".

1 comment:

  1. One of the best things I've learned from my father is that fried leftover spaghetti is delcious. Toss a little olive oil in your frying pan and give it a shot.

    Mmm... pasta... should not have read this before grocery shopping...