When I meet foreigners that have not lived here in Italy, I am a bit at loss about some habits they may have about our local and very beloved pasta.
I will jot down a few facts that you surely already know, so you could possibly wish to dedicate your precious time to better purposes, but you could also be so kind to read further and then get back later to nicer amusements.
I will not delve about the pasta and noodles debate. With all due respect to beautiful culinary traditions, noodles are neither in our culture, nor in our language. Lately we are exposed to other cuisines, mainly Chinese in provincial towns as where I live, but I rarely buy their products, let alone eat them. I had to browse a site of a producer of oriental food to find the name used in the package. They use names of our pasta that resemble most the shape of the foreign counterpart (vermicelli, fettuccine, fili).
As I am a lazy cook, I will just talk of the dried pasta you find packed in a nice box or bag to purchase.This and this are my favorite brands at the moment.
First of all, pasta is made of durum wheat. Lately gluten free variations have been added for the sake of celiac eaters and you can find whole grain specialties made of farro/spelt or other cereals, especially in organic food stores. Some traditional pasta made with other grains are rare to my knowledge. One lovely example are pizzoccheri, which are partly made with buckwheat. Some pasta are prepared with eggs instead of water, such as lasagne. Sometimes spinach are added. The other colorful pasta in funny shapes you may find is produced only for tourist. I have never eaten them, nor I know any Italian that has eaten them.
If you find a soft wheat variety, unless you have toothache and/or wear a denture, please do not buy, do not even look at it, just forget about it. Your life will instantly improve.
Obviously I would eat only Italian made pasta that was specifically produced for the Italian market. We are pretty mischievous guys, but our food legislation is strict and our food inspectors are even stricter. Actually the European Union tries now and then to swipe away some of our culinary traditions and our politicians are too busy partying in Brussels instead of avoiding such downfalls, but this is another story.
Pasta has to be made or extruded through bronze. This will ensure that pasta is rough and the sauce will stick to it and make every bite a most pleasurable encounter.
Pasta producers are kind enough to indicate cooking time. Please try to stick with it. I still remember when I visited my family in Toronto, Canada and they told me that they would cook penne for 45 minutes. It happened ages ago, but I have never recovered since. I still remember those wretched, irremediably flat penne laying unconsciously on the plate, thoroughly asphyxiated by all that boiling. I already shared my opinion on al dente here.
Pasta has to be cooked in a lot of water. Salted water. Normally I use a 3 or 4 quart pan for up to three people (my family). I fill it with water and leave about one inch on top, so that those naughty water bubbles will not spit over my stove. Then I put in a handful of salt. The water should be as salty as sea water. In this way the pasta will drink up salt while cooking and it will perfectly complement a not so salty sauce. If you have high blood pressure or other medical conditions, you may want to reduce or skip the salt.
In order to save time and energy, you may wish to cover your pan, so water will boil faster. After putting in the pasta, you can leave the pan partially covered only if you lower the heat. Otherwise water will bubble up and your stove will be a complete mess.
After you put the pasta in, it is customary to stir it well until the water has coated pasta and it does not stick together any longer. Usually I stir it two or three times during cooking time. Some pasta, such as spaghetti or penne lisce, is very tricky. So you may have to stir them more often. If you do this, there is no need of other hocus-pocus in your water, no oil or other stuff. Adding oil is actually something I have heard, but never tried. So just save your oil for the sauce.
Normally the ratio pasta to sauce is approximately 4:1 or 5:1. We do not drown our pasta in sauce. Pasta is not a one pot meal. Pasta is pasta. What we enjoy is pasta with the sauce. Not the sauce with a little pasta in it. I tend to overdo the veggies, because I love them, but if you want to serve an Italian style pasta you should stick to the above ratio.
We never ever add ketchup to pasta. If you do it, please STOP and repent. If you feel tempted to do it again (how could you?!?), please try our quick pasta in bianco. Basically you add either a good quality olive oil or butter if you like. You can make it fancier with some freshly ground pepper and some grated parmigiano or pecorino romano (now you are having pasta cacio e pepe) or some cheese of your liking. You can have a very easy pasta sauce, melting some gorgonzola or other blue cheese with some heavy cream or a dollop of cream cheese. You can make big batches of pasta sauce and freeze some in one meal portion in tiny plastic glasses and have something fancier at hand when needed. Simply microwave it for a few seconds and you’re done. There are many ways to avoid ketchup in your pasta. You are not alone and you can make a full recovery and forget your oh-so-horrible past.
Please share any peculiar habit or doubt you have about pasta, let’s talk about it together.