the soul of pasta

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When I cooked in London not too long ago, my good friend and host had a particularly charming Italian roommate. He was Sicilian, with the olive complexion and hairiness of my Southern Italian family to prove it. I asked him one evening where his favorite place to eat pasta was, near desperate for a pasta moment.

To clarify, a pasta moment is me, or you, or us, perched above our reasonably portioned bowls, each so perfectly contained that little more than a glass of wine is needed alongside: perhaps something funky and natural, with surprisingly enjoyable notes of turpentine. Both make us wonder how a single ingredient like flour or grapes are capable of such feats in flavor and economy, but alas the natural world is full of wonder. The pasta, homemade, of course, is entwined with its condimento, a few gloriously oily ingredients that coat, not drown. Any shape will do in this fantasy, really. I’m only discretionary when it comes to the stuffed variety: ravioli, tortellini, and, agnolotti are reserved for the appropriate appetite. Maybe there was bread or salad beforehand, but we were too busy witnessing how truly harmonious a dish of pasta can be to notice. 

The fatal error in my fantasy is that to be a worthy bowl of pasta, the noodle has to be fresh. Back in London, I was a drifter who didn’t have the means to accumulate the necessary arsenal of ingredients to make pasta by hand: a roller, fresh eggs, semolina flour, olive oil, elbow grease. And so on, and so forth. So I consulted my new Italian informant. There was a moment of pause, followed with his thickly-accented response: “Hmm… pasta? I don’t really go out for pasta.”

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Many Italians, I’ve found, eat pasta daily. It is a simple, humble staple. I spent a bit of time working in a kitchen in Tuscany. We were responsible for staff meal at lunchtime and if it didn’t involve pasta, the staff would gesture wildly in disapproval. This is why its important to know how to master making a bowl yourself. It is the perfect example of how difficult simple food can be. Most get it wrong - myself included, up until very recently, and still on occasion, when I do not give it the necessary thought it deserves, slipping shamefully back into ignorant ways. Pasta, if prepared poorly is a crass thing: overcooked, over-sauced, overcomplicated. This, I think, compounds its reputation as something on-occasion-gluttonous, not everyday-wholesome.

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The most common error is to overcook it. You’re looking for that elusive, but essential, al dente chew. Luckily there is empirical evidence of its toothsomeness right in the noodle: that small white speck of uncooked pasta in the center. An Italian pastaiola I read about refers to this as the anima. Anima means soul; the soul of pasta. But al dente (“to the tooth”) isn’t some kind of Italian folklore, although plenty has been written about its wisdom: legend has it that not only does slight undercooking make it more enjoyable to eat, but it keeps the pasta from feeling overly filling. This was taught to me not by a Sicilian, but a German with whom I had brief and clandestine romance; much of it occurring around the making and eating of tagliatelle bolognese.

Not one to take the lore of pasta at face value, I fact-checked his statement later on: overcooked pasta raises its glycemic index. The additional water picks up the slack of your digestive system. Occasionally, this predigestion is helpful, but with simple carbohydrates, like semolina flour, the slower the digestion, the less likely the spike in insulin. The German simply told me al dente would prevent it from sitting heavily in my stomach, and at the time, this visual of pasta as a soggy, listless noodle was off-putting enough not to inquire further.

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A good bowl of pasta should make you reflect on how it can be possible for a few simple ingredients to play so well together: I’d imagine that if they were the big, Italian family of its ancestry, such close proximity would be uncomfortable. Too much variety in condimento renders the dish a messy plate of vegetables instead of elegant, well-rounded bites. And my goodness: let pasta be your saving grace from the most destitute of kitchens! It will take to whatever bits and bobs of produce you have on hand.

You can tell what a food culture holds dear by the words used to describe the practice surrounding a single dish, which, in any other language, might only have one name. Pasta is the working of durum wheat flour and water “paste” into an elastic dough. Three preparations are regarded across the various regions of Italy: the most recognizable is past’asciutto, which is the accommodation of freshly boiled pasta into condimento (condiments), which becomes its sauce once a liquor of salted, starched pasta water is added. Pasta al forno finishes its cooking in the oven, where barely-cooked pasta is baked with its condimento instead of tossed. Pasta in brodo requires pasta’s smallest incarnation in order to be steeped and spooned up from a richly-flavored stock, referred to as “broth” when served as a dish, not used as an ingredient. Each necessitates working with different shape for the structural integrity and enjoyment of the overall dish.

For past’ asciutto, I’m having my moment with dried, heartier shapes like bucatini and rigatoni; the former with its satisfying twisting and curling: a slippery, comfy kind of companionship that only a noodle can provide (as far as food goes, anyways). The latter, a nostalgic stalwart that reminds me of my favorite childhood pasta alfredo. These shapes have more “soul” than thinner noodles, like spaghetti and vermicelli, making them more forgiving in the water than fresh, and thus easier to achieve “al dente perfection,” as the box or bag may claim. Fresh pasta, though a delicious, platonic ideal, is fussy to make and a bit like very young children or needy partners to cook: it requires near constant attention and perhaps a tender touch to ensure its strength and fortitude upon entry into the world. It is not an everyday pasta, as even Italians would agree: we relied on countless bags of dried rotini and penne to feed our kitchen army abroad.

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Lastly, sauce. Hardly sauce at all, really. Your condimento eventually becomes your sauce in just a few ingredients: a single vegetable or cheese, fat (olive oil or butter or both), and the pasta cooking liquid you salted well earlier (didn’t you?). Adding the freshly-cooked pasta directly into the sauté pan with a bit of cooking liquid allows the starch to thicken what is a essentially a pasta “stock,” allowing the flavors of the other ingredients to meld together.

The version above is a riff on misticanza,  the Roman word for a mixture of sweet and bitter leaves. Usually served as a salad of lettuces, I used dandelion, chard, and beet greens instead and prepared them rippassata-style. “Rippassare", “to go over again” means we cook them twice: first, blanched briefly in salty water then shocked under cold, then again, sautéed, in garlicky, chili-scented olive oil. Urfa bibir pepper, a Turkish chili, which has smoky, raisin-y undertones and is slightly sweeter than more common dried chili powders, turns the oil a brilliant shade of maroon. I drain the pasta when its still slightly too toothsome to eat (try a noodle and check for the anima), toss the hot pasta with the greens, oil, and water, and let it finish its journey in the pan. When assembled as simply and thoughtfully as the company you choose to enjoy it with (that’s my friend, Cristi, above), a pasta moment will never disappoint. 

  Pasta Misticanza (Pasta with Mixed Leaves)    A variety of leaves on hand, aiming for a mix of bitter (dandelion, escarole, kale) and sweet (chard, collards, spinach)  , about two big handfuls per serving    Semolina pasta (your favorite shape – I used rigatoni), about 100g per person    Garlic    Extra-virgin olive oil    Chili pepper flakes (I like Urfa bibir)    Plenty of salted, boiling water      Bring a large pot of water to the boil and salt generously. It’s important to taste at this stage, since the water will become an ingredient in the dish later on. It should taste as salty as the sea.  Meanwhile, fill the base of a pan large enough to hold your cooked pasta with more extra-virgin olive oil than you feel comfortable using: it should coat about a 1/4 in up. Remember, this will become your sauce.  Smash a few garlic cloves with the back of a knife and remove their skins. Add to the oil, along with a few generous pinches of chili flakes (try a few flakes to gauge the heat and flavor first). Slowly heat the oil until it smells fragrant and deepens in color from the chili. Be careful not to color the garlic or it will become bitter. Turn off the heat and set aside.  Remove any thick stems from the base and core of your leaves. Have a pair of tongs and a bowl fitted with a colander ready. Drop the leaves into your now-boiling pot of water until they turn bright green and any remaining stems are tender, about 20 seconds. Transfer greens to colander without removing too much liquid and run under cold water.  Drain thoroughly and roughly chop. Add to the oil and let warm though, on low.  Bring the water back up to the boil. Drop in your pasta and cook until its still firm, but edible. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta to the pan with the greens. Using a ladle, slowly add in about 1/4 cup of cooking liquid and let the noodles continue to simmer, tossing frequently. Continue to add liquid, bit by bit, until most is absorbed: you're looking for a velvety sauce that would coat the back of a spoon if you let it, and for the noodles to lose any undesirable firmness.   When the noodles are cooked to your liking, turn off the heat and plate immediately, topping with a grated hard cheese like  parmigiano reggiano  or  pecorino romano .  There you have it: you've just mastered pasta. Now go pour yourself a glass of wine, if you haven't already.

 Pasta Misticanza (Pasta with Mixed Leaves)

A variety of leaves on hand, aiming for a mix of bitter (dandelion, escarole, kale) and sweet (chard, collards, spinach), about two big handfuls per serving

Semolina pasta (your favorite shape – I used rigatoni), about 100g per person

Garlic

Extra-virgin olive oil

Chili pepper flakes (I like Urfa bibir)

Plenty of salted, boiling water

 

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and salt generously. It’s important to taste at this stage, since the water will become an ingredient in the dish later on. It should taste as salty as the sea.

Meanwhile, fill the base of a pan large enough to hold your cooked pasta with more extra-virgin olive oil than you feel comfortable using: it should coat about a 1/4 in up. Remember, this will become your sauce.

Smash a few garlic cloves with the back of a knife and remove their skins. Add to the oil, along with a few generous pinches of chili flakes (try a few flakes to gauge the heat and flavor first). Slowly heat the oil until it smells fragrant and deepens in color from the chili. Be careful not to color the garlic or it will become bitter. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Remove any thick stems from the base and core of your leaves. Have a pair of tongs and a bowl fitted with a colander ready. Drop the leaves into your now-boiling pot of water until they turn bright green and any remaining stems are tender, about 20 seconds. Transfer greens to colander without removing too much liquid and run under cold water.  Drain thoroughly and roughly chop. Add to the oil and let warm though, on low.

Bring the water back up to the boil. Drop in your pasta and cook until its still firm, but edible. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta to the pan with the greens. Using a ladle, slowly add in about 1/4 cup of cooking liquid and let the noodles continue to simmer, tossing frequently. Continue to add liquid, bit by bit, until most is absorbed: you're looking for a velvety sauce that would coat the back of a spoon if you let it, and for the noodles to lose any undesirable firmness. 

When the noodles are cooked to your liking, turn off the heat and plate immediately, topping with a grated hard cheese like parmigiano reggiano or pecorino romano.

There you have it: you've just mastered pasta. Now go pour yourself a glass of wine, if you haven't already.