The following is a brief description of how to make a real, authentically delicious plate of pasta. In fact it provides clues as to how to aim at producing the "perfect" plate of pasta.
Not only can you learn how to cook an authentic tasty plate of Italian pasta, but with practice you can do it in about ten minutes and using ingredients found festering in the fridge and in cupboards.
This is the order in which I've described the process:
1. Pasta module
1.1 Boil the water2. Sauce Module
1.2 Put in the pasta
1.3 Stir occasionally
1.4 Test, taste and take out
1.6 Add oil
2.1 Before the tomato
2.2 The tomato
2.3 After the tomato
2.4 Other things
1. Pasta module
1.1 Boil the waterBoil a large pot of water. The more water, the better, because if there's not enough then the pasta will stick together and form a gunge. Add some salt according to taste. (They say that 1 litre of water and 1 teaspoonful of salt per 100 g of pasta is "correct", but I say the more water the better and as for the salt - it's a question of taste). Keep the lid on and the heat high, so that the water boils faster. Then when the water is boiling, take the lid off.
1.2 Put in pastaWhen the water boils and NOT before, (take off the lid!) and put in the pasta.
In Italian we say "to throw down" the pasta (Buttare giù la pasta). I don't know why, because you actually have to be quite careful or you'll get burnt with boiling water!!!
100g of pasta makes about a plateful of finished product. So to know how much pasta to cook, simply multiply "Number of persons" x "Number of plates they're going to eat" x 100g, and there you have it!
1.3 Stir occasionallyYou should stir the pasta occasionally as it's cooking, but especially in the first minute or two, as this is when it tends to stick most. When the water starts to boil again, turn the heat down a bit and from now on keep the lid OFF. The water should bubble nicely in a lively sort of way but it should not rise and spill over the side of the pot.
1.4 Test, taste and take outThis, in my humble opinion, is the most important step in the attempt to create the perfect plate of pasta. The object of the exercise is to take the pasta off the heat and drain the water off AT EXACTLY THE RIGHT MOMENT. If you take it off too late, which is where most non-Italians almost invariably get it wrong, then the pasta will be overcooked, soggy, stodgy and horrible. [Actually, some Italians have been known to perpetrate this horrendous crime as well, but these cases are invariably hushed up (for reasons of national security, no doubt!)].
When the pasta is almost cooked, ie the time specified on the packet minus 1 or 2 minutes, fish a spaghetto (or whatever type of pasta you're cooking) out with a fork, take it in your fingers, bite a bit off and look at the bit left between your fingers, end-on. If it felt soft to bite and in your mouth and you couldn't see a little white uncooked dot or line in the middle of the bit between your fingers, then IT'S TOO LATE - you've overcooked it and all is lost [You will now have to apply for a special visa if you want to go to Italy]. On the other hand, if it felt a bit hard to the teeth as you bit it, and if you could see a white uncooked bit in the middle, then it's not ready yet. Try again every 30 seconds (approx).
The right moment to take the pasta out is when you can only just barely detect a slight eensy-weensy hint of hardness when you bite it, and when you can see a little white uncooked dot or line in the middle of the section you've bitten off. This little dot or line will disappear by itself in the next few minutes, because the pasta will continue to cook as you drain off the water, mix in the sauce, serve out the helpings, wait for everyone to organize themselves for eating, set the table, etc... And so, when the pasta is finally in the plate ready to be eaten it will be in the right state of cookédness.
This is what that much-maligned phrase "al dente" is all about. It all boils down to the size of that little white dot. Some people like their pasta very 'al dente' so that when it reaches the plate there is still a teeny weeny white dot in the middle, and others like it so that the dot disappears almost as soon as the water is drained off. It's another question of taste. The important thing however is that there MUST be a white dot (of whatever size) when you take the water off the boil and drain it off - otherwise it's overcooked. It's as simple as that!
1.5 DrainThe draining off of the water should be a quick, efficient Blitzkrieg type operation (otherwise the pasta will get cold, and we can't have that!). So have a colander ready in the sink and a bottle of olive oil handy (extra virgin of course). When that vital second comes and you take the plunge (ie you decide that it time to take the pasta off) then it's action stations. Turn off the heat, take the pot, pour the water and pasta into the colander, put the empty pot back on the cooker, take the colander and pour the drained pasta back into the pot (there's no need to mess around shaking the last drop of water out - it will evaporate by itself anyway), get rid of the colander, and finally pour some olive oil over the pasta and stir (optional), or alternatively skip the olive oil and just mix in the sauce (which you'll have prepared while the pasta was cooking (hopefully)).
1.6 Add in the sauceAdd in the sauce and stir it around.
2. Sauce Module
This document just covers tomato-based sauces. There are other types of sauces which do not contain tomatoes, but I'll deal with that elsewhere, otherwise it'll get too complicated.
This "recipe", if it can be called that, is very simple to follow. It makes use of simple basic ingredients which are almost always to be found in kitchens and so one doesn't even need to go to the shops to buy them!
2.1 Before the tomato
2.2 The tomato
2.3 After the tomato
2.4 Other things
2.1 Before the tomatoThere are some ingredients that are best fried before adding the tomato. These ingredients include garlic, onions, capers, carrots, celery, black olives, anchovies (tinned), mushrooms, hot chilli and probably some other things but these are the ones I know. This is yet another question of taste [Some people have been known to fry things like chorizo, peppers, courgettes, mince, ... - they also need special visas] (I always say that a good spaghetti sauce is like a good haircut - it's not only what you put in, it's also what you leave out!)
This part of the process is also known as 'doing a soffritto' (or to fry slightly). Before starting to fry, chop ALL the ingredients that you're going to use. Don't chop the first ingredient, start frying it, and then start chopping the second ingredient, etc. If you do this, by the time you get round to the last ingredient, the first ingredient will be burnt! Again, it's a question of taste BUT everything should be chopped small - the smaller the better.
So, take a frying pan and pour in some olive oil - until the bottom is well covered and a bit more. I strongly recommend extra virgin olive oil and nothing else for several reasons. Firstly, it tastes better than any other type of oil. Secondly, it healthier and better for you than any other type of oil (even after frying it doesn't lose so much of it's vitamins, etc as other types) and thirdly, it doesn't impregnate the things that are frying in it (because of its chemical structure it creates a film AROUND the thing and then fries) No, I'm not an employee of the Olive Oil Council.
Keep the heat low otherwise you run the risk of burning the oil and the things in it. Of the ingredients mentioned above you can use them in any combination although I'd say 1) the garlic was essential 2) I wouldn't use ALL of them together and 3) perhaps anchovies and mushrooms don't go well together but then again...!! Fry until the things are sort of half cooked, ie a few minutes of gentle sizzling.
2.2 The tomatoDON'T use "tomate frito". [persons doing this are automatically turned down when they apply for those special visas]. You can use "pomodori passati" as is, or "pomodori enteri pelati" which you have to liquidize in a blender or using a fork depending if you like chunks or not (I recommend the latter but then again...) Or you can use natural tomatoes, but that's another story.
(Note for readers outside Spain: just ignore that bit about Tomate Frito. This is an abomination that is available in shops in Spain and is the number one reason why Spaniards are unable to make even a decent plate of spaghetti, let alone a good one!)
Just pour the tomato over the oil and things and stir. The exact second you do this is not so important BUT you should take care not to burn the garlic as it will spoil the taste of everything else. If this happens there's nothing for it but to throw everything out, wash and dry the frying pan and start again.
2.3 After the tomatoThere are certain things that just naturally have to come after the tomato. For example, herbs, peas, and other things which I can't remember at the moment.
The best herb for tomato-based sauces is basil (albahaca, basilico). Fresh is obviously better than dried. I strongly recommend making an effort to get the fresh stuff - there's no comparison really and once you start to use it you'll never ... And talking of basil there's a bit of herb-lore that I just can't resist inflicting on you all and it's this: there are (at least) two species of basil plant out there. The variety used in Italy (apart from being nicer, tastier, greener, etc) has much bigger leaves and so is easier to chop. The other variety, which has tiny little leaves is not much use for cooking and is only useful for scaring away flies and other irksome insects.
When the tomato starts bubbling, that's the time to add your herbs. If you haven't got basil, you can use oregano or parsley (although IMHO they're not so nice as basil).
You can also add peas at this time (if they're frozen peas, you can either add them as they are (ie frozen) or you can boil them up separately beforehand and then add them).
Some people also add a pinch of sugar to take away that slightly acidic taste that is sometimes there from tinned tomatoes. I'm not sure what happens to their special visa applications.
Watch out for the liquidity of your sauce. Ideally, it should be quite thick but still liquid and runny. If you see that it's getting too thick, add a few spoonfuls from the water the pasta's cooking in.
The sauce should take about ten minutes to cook starting from when you turn on the heat, ie about the same time as the pasta. Thus, in theory you can time it so that they are both ready at the same time, pour the sauce onto the pasta et voilá (Roberto è il tuo zio!). However, it's always a good idea to start the sauce first because if it's ready too soon ... no problemo, just cover it and wait for the pasta to cook. On the other hand though, if the pasta is ready too soon and the sauce isn't cooked yet then you're in trouble because after you drain it, put it back into the pot, add oil and stir, if you don't add the sauce immediately and eat it, it will go sticky and overcook.
Well, that's about it. If you have any questions, comments, insults or whatever please do reply to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. Also, I have a friend who works in the Italian consulate, so if any of you out there need a special visa....
PS. The lovely plate of pasta can be enhanced by grating some Parmesan cheese over it.
PPS. And of course it should be washed down with a lovely glass of wine.