When Americans think of pasta, spaghetti with meat sauce and lasagna come to mind. That’s pasta, right? Some sort of noodles smothered in meat, cheese and sauce? That’s not what Italians think of when it comes to pasta. To an Italian, pasta is itself the focal point and the sauce is merely that – a sauce or compliment to the succulent pasta.
In Italy, pasta is an entrée, served as an entire dish before the meat, fish or main course. It is a stand-alone dish. To be placed in such a lofty position, pasta must be high quality, cooked to perfection and served with a “Wow, that was good” sauce.
Preparing and cooking great pasta begins with the pasta itself. It must be high quality. An excellent dried pasta – directly from Italy – is De Cecco.
The great Italian chefs recommend plenty of water – six quarts to a pound of pasta. Don’t salt the water until it’s at full boil – just before adding the pasta. A rule of thumb for salt is about three tablespoons of salt for 6 quarts of water.
Never put oil in the water. To keep from sticking, an Italian cook refuses to leave the pasta unattended, stirring constantly to keep it separated and cooking evenly. Be careful of overcooking. “Scotta” means overcooked in Italian. It is a word of contempt that no chef ever wants to hear. Pasta should be served “al dente”, which means “to the tooth”. Pasta should not be mushy, but firm in order to blend perfectly with the sauces and have that stand-alone quality as a dish.
De Cecco pasta, such as the #11 spaghettini, should be cooked 9 minutes. If you are adding a sauce, cut back slightly since the pasta will finish cooking in the sauce. Taste constantly to sample the texture.
When the pasta is just right, remove it from the stove and strain, but never rinse pasta. The starches that cling to the pasta are essential to texture and taste. Italians may leave the main course in the oven or the salad on the counter, but they always serve pasta the instant it is done – no delays. For a special touch, warm the bowl before adding the pasta. Pasta sauces should be used sparingly, just enough to thoroughly coat the pasta, not slopped into a bowl like soup.
Some spread a little butter or olive oil on the pasta and eat it that way. But pasta is infinitely more interesting with a tasty, homemade sauce.
Sauces in Italy are as varied as the stars in the heavens. Not only do different regions have different sauces, individual families in each of those regions develop sauces to their tastes. And they are likely to change from batch to batch. So, there is no right or wrong recipe for a sauce. It should be one that appeals to your tastes and that of your family and guests.
There are numerous commercial sauces – and perhaps due to a time constraint – many simply serve those warmed sauces out of the jar. But that’s feeding, not cooking.
Why not try your own sauce and begin your own family traditions. A good, basic sauce is a traditional southern Italian tomato sauce. It is simple, tasty and can be enhanced with a number of ingredients.
For this sauce, fresh tomatoes or whole tomatoes in a can are often used, but a good substitute and big time saver is a product called Furmano’s crushed tomatoes. They are rich in taste and smooth without straining. Keep several cans on hand and you will be able to whip up a homemade tomato sauce whenever the occasion arises.
Basic Southern Italian Tomato Sauce
2 15-oz. cans crushed Furmano’s tomatoes
4 large garlic cloves, crushed lightly
1/4 c. EVO
1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
Freshly ground pepper
½ tsp. basil (or to taste)
2 tbs. finely chopped Italian parsley
In a saucepan, cook the crushed garlic cloves in the olive oil until golden brown, then add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, parsley and basil. Fresh basil is delightful when available. Simmer and reduce as necessary. Water can be added if the spaghettini or other pasta is delayed. Toss the cooked pasta in a warm bowl with the sauce, but use only enough sauce to coat the pasta. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese if desired.
You now have a basic sauce that can be enhanced with a world of other ingredients – anchovies, mushrooms, onions, prosciutto, chicken, etc. – and you now have the beginnings of your own family recipe.