The internet probably doesn’t need yet another pasta recipe. But this one is so good, says the little voice in my head. This one needs to be shared. Even though everyone knows how to cook pasta and I’m reasonably sure that it’s the first thing that most students learn to cook after they move out of home (toast with Vegemite doesn’t count, even if you eat it for dinner, and not breakfast).
Here’s the thing – our trip to Italy three years ago completely revolutionised how I thought about pasta, what it should taste like and how to cook it. I used to think that my two options were tomato or cream based sauces, and that I needed to put a lot of stuff into it to make it flavourful. As it turns out, the pasta dishes I had been cooking all those years were so over the top – heavy handed with tinned tomatoes or overly rich with cream.
The Italians have a different approach to pasta. Less is more.It took only a day in Rome for me to see the error of my ways. There’s Pastificio that serves pasta for €4 – simple affairs dished out of large bain maries. Their rigatoni alla gricia, a minimalist affair tossed with crisp guanciale, pecorino and a generous dose of freshly ground pepper is one of the most memorable meals I’ve eaten. Same which goes for their summer broccoli pasta, a reincarnation of which I’ve posted here was similarly excellent.
While I’m talking all things pasta, here are the five most important things I’ve learnt about cooking it.
This al dente business
In Italy, the pasta is cooked firmer, always al dente. How firm you ask? If you, like me, have heard the term al dente before and know that it means ‘to the tooth’ but haven’t been to Italy to find out for yourself yet… I’d say that it is tastes like it would it if you cooked it for the time listed on the packet, maybe just a minute more (Australia has hard water). To the uninitiated, it can taste almost uncooked. At the end of the day, I’m a big believer in personal preference so eat your pasta how you want, but the next time you cook it – try just cooking it for a minute less than you normally would.
Salt your pasta water
The water you cook your pasta in should taste like the sea as the saying goes. Marcella Hazan, author of The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking says “For every 450g/1lb of pasta, put in no less than 1½ tablespoons of salt, more if the sauce is very mild and undersalted. Add the salt when the water comes to a boil. Wait until the water returns to a full, rolling boil before putting in the pasta.”
Skip the oil
It’s a good idea to skip the oil too. “Never put oil in the water except when cooking stuffed homemade pasta,” says Marcella. No oil has the distinct bonus of making the pot just that much easier to wash up too.
Use pasta water to season and thicken your sauce
The one thing I’ve learnt from watching Italians cook pasta is that they almost always reserve some of the water that the pasta is cooking in, then use it in their sauce. The salt in the water and the starch that comes out from the pasta work to thicken and season the sauce both at once. Try it next time – just a couple of tablespoons is usually enough. If you’ve salted your water like the sea, you might not need to add salt to your final sauce at all.
Toss the pasta in the sauce
How often have you seen or been served pasta with a sauce that’s ladled over the top. If you pause to think about it, good Italian restaurants always toss the pasta in sauce, it’s very rarely just plonked on top.
In the sequence of steps that lead to producing a dish of pasta and getting it to the table, none is more important than tossing. Up to the time you toss, pasta and sauce are two separate entities. Tossing bridges the separation and makes them one… However marvellous a sauce may be, it cannot merely sit on top of or at the bottom of the bowl.
-Marcella Hazan, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
See, you don’t want to be the heathen that’s serving up bridgeless pasta do you?
There’s beauty in the simplicity of Italian pasta. You can almost always taste exactly what is in it. Just as a stir fry shouldn’t have more than two or three main ingredients, I’ve learnt that a good pasta should only have a few central flavours. There’s cacio e pepe with pepper and pecorino, amatriciana which is cooked with guanciale and tomato, or pasta simply tossed with pesto.
This one, my new favourite weeknight pasta relies on classic Italian flavours of pork, fennel, chilli and Tuscan kale. It can be hard to incorporate green vegetables into pasta dishes and the hardiness of Tuscan kale or cavolo nero holds up really well in this sauce.
If you’ve never cooked with Tuscan kale before, I hadn’t before this, you’ll need to remove the tough stem. Just grab either side of the leaf and pull.
- 2 tbsp oil
- 6 thick pork and fennel sausages, skins removed, broken into bite-sized pieces
- 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
- 1½ tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp dried chilli flakes
- 125 ml (½ cup) dry white wine
- 125 ml (½ cup) chicken stock
- 1 bunch (approx 300g) roughly torn cavolo nero, stems removed
- 400 gm dried casarecce (substitute penne or rigatoni)
- 50 gm finely grated parmesan, plus extra to serve
- ¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
- Cook pasta in a large saucepan of salted boiling water until al dente (10-11 minutes). When draining pasta, make sure to reserve some pasta water to add to the sauce.
- While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce. Heat oil in a medium fry pan over medium high heat and add sausage and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned (4-5 minutes). [I've found that a stainless steel fry pan aids in browning, which means better flavour, but a non stick fry pan is easier to manage.]
- Add garlic, rosemary and spices to pan and stir until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Deglaze with wine and reduce until almost evaporated (1-2 minutes).
- Add stock and cavolo nero. Cover with a lid, and cook until cavolo nero is just wilted (2-3 minutes).
- Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pasta directly from the water to the sauce. Toss through over a low heat with parmesan and parsley, and serve warm.
- Season to taste and serve with extra parmesan and a generous grind of pepper.