As promised in my previous post, Italian cuisine for foreigners, here I am to share with you some useful tips to cook Italian food as Italians do! I wasn’t quite sure where to begin, but then I realised that in order to start posting recipes, I have to make sure first that the basics are clear. And I remembered seeing more than one person making huge mistakes when experimenting with pasta, and then wondering why their pasta didn’t taste like mine. In my next post I will give you ideas on how to make delicious sauces, I’m sure by then you will have mastered the “art” of cooking pasta.
Even if boiling pasta is a very simple task, there are a few crucial rules you need to follow if you want to obtain perfectly cooked pasta al dente (to the tooth). Maybe, in the beginning, you will need a little effort to change your habits and remember every step correctly, but I can assure you that this will change in no time; besides that, you’ll be immediately rewarded by the greatly improved taste.
So… let’s get started!
1) Before boiling pasta, you need to start preparing your sauce. Take into account how much time it will take, and make sure the condiment will be ready before the pasta is. [UPDATE: click here for quick sauce recipes]
2) Fill a pot with 1 litre of water per 100 grams of pasta; if you put less, the pasta will have less place to swirl around and will eventually stick together (and to the pot), and it will also take more time for the water to start boiling again after you add the pasta.
3) Only when the water is boiling and makes big bubbles, add some salt. The proportion is about 8 to 15 grams per litre of water, depending on tastes as well as on the kind of salt used; You need to try and figure out how you prefer it, I usually stir the water thoroughly after adding salt, then I taste it: it must be pretty saltier than how you expect the pasta to be, since not all of the salt will be absorbed.
4) Wait until the water is boiling vigorously again, and only then add the pasta, and stir again. Make sure to check the cooking time on the box.
5) Never put a lid on the pot, and remember to stir occasionally. There’s no need to add any oil, especially if you’re using dried pasta!!! Some people prefer to add some when boiling fresh pasta, I usually don’t and it works out just fine.
6) After about five minutes or so, when you see the water turn starchy and white, it is time to take a couple of spoonfuls of it, and put it in your sauce: this will make it stick better to the pasta. If the sauce is still cooking just add the water and stir, if it’s already done, add the water and make it cook for a few more minutes; If the sauce of your choice is supposed to be raw, collect the water ahead of time and make it cool down before mixing it in.
7) Two minutes before the timer goes off, make sure you have a colander ready and try a piece of pasta: it should be almost done, but still a little bit too hard.
8) Since the pasta will keep cooking while you strain it and even after, you need to be quick: make sure the sauce is heating, and strain the pasta immediately, one or two minutes before the time indicated on the box. Never leave the pasta in the hot water past the cooking time!
9) Right after straining, add the pasta to the sauce, stir thoroughly (with the flame still on!) for one minute, and you’re done! If you’re using a raw sauce like pesto, you shouldn’t put it in a hot pot, use instead a bowl to mix it with pasta.
10) Serve the pasta right after it’s done, otherwise it’ll keep cooking and consequently turn into a stodgy lump; if you really can’t avoid to prepare it in advance, remember to boil the pasta a couple of minutes less than it should, and to save a glass of the water you used: when mealtime arrives, just reheat the pasta adding the boiling water as needed.
Of course, none of these steps will help unless you’re using good quality pasta. You don’t need to spend a fortune choosing the fanciest overpriced box, you just need to know what to look for.
When purchasing dry pasta, check first the ingredients: it should be made with durum wheat flour. The same is true for fresh pasta, but in this case you also have to check the colour: this kind of pasta should contain 1 egg per every 100g flour, but not always does; an easy trick to spot the pasta with a higher content of eggs is to look for a yellowish hue.
As a last tip, if you choose to buy Italian pasta (good choice! :D), make sure it is really Italian. It sounds obvious, but it’s really not, and here’s a little anecdote about it: I was living in Ireland at that time, and I had just moved to a new neighbourhood, so I went to inspect the closest food shop – a rather fancy one.
When I got to the pasta aisle I found a wonderful surprise: one of my favourite Italian brands of pasta, a brand I cannot find anywhere, was sold there! While I was at it, I noticed a second brand I had seen before. It had and Italian name, actually the name of an Italian city, but it was neither an Italian brand or made in Italy, and it costed way more than the delicious Italian pasta right next to it, but… you know what?
I saw people approaching, giving a glance at both products, and choosing the second option, probably because it sounded more Italian to them! So, to be sure, check the provenance on the packet.
Now you know everything you need to cook perfect pasta. As you can see, the process is far from complicated and easy to get used to. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!