In the summer of 2019, my husband and I were scouring the streets of London, looking for a cozy place to dine. While my desi-food loving better half chose Dishoom, I walked into the restaurant, Jamie’s Italian at Covent Garden, to fulfill my love for Italian dishes. As I sat there alone, browsing through the menu, my vegetarian roots prompted me to go for a Tagliatelle Pomodoro. “Simple, delicious tomato and basil sauce with Parmesan," read the description of this iconic Italian dish on the menu. A few minutes later, the waiter arrived with a pasta, bursting a crimson red colour garnished with shavings of parmesan. As I twirled the tagliatelle onto the tines of the fork, the pasta felt flatter and smoother than usual while the sauce was redolent of fresh tomatoes and basil. Unlike the other pastas I had had before, that were loaded with cream and condiments, this one felt light and deliciously cheesy. That day, I tasted the best pasta pomodoro of my life.
Today is World Pasta Day, and there isn't a better time to bookmark some cooking basics for a perfect pasta dish.
For Silvia Landucci, a native of Arezzo, Italy, a handmade tagliatelle is reminiscent of childhood, especially winter Sundays, when her mother and grandmother would cook together. “The whole family would gather around the fireplace, with their favourite pasta bowls and share family stories about relatives I never met," says Landucci with a smile.
“Choosing the right sauce for the right pasta can make the pasta sing," says Calvin Crasto, Chef de Cuisine and head chef for Zeta, the European restaurant at Hyatt Regency Pune. “You can make a great sauce, but if you don’t know how to pair it with the starchy spaghetti, then you are not doing it right." So, what does it take to perfect a bowl of pasta? These Italian chefs offer advise.
Magic of water
“Before boiling the water for the pasta, make sure you have enough salt in hand," says chef Christian Huber of the Italian restaurant Alto Vino at JW Marriott Pune. He hails from Merano in northern Italy. He takes a big pot of water, large enough to conduct heat quickly, and once it begins to bubble, deftly adds spoonfuls of salt. “The boiling water should be as salty as the ocean. The boiling process helps add flavour to the noodles."
Landucci talks about cooking spaghetti. She suggests adding the it only when the water has come to a complete boil. This step ensures that it doesn’t overcook and maintain its structure instead of becoming too soft and mushy. “It is also essential to stir the water immediately to prevent the pasta from sticking together, or to the sides of the pot."
The science behind this technique is that once you add thespaghetti, the water temperature will drop slightly and the starch will begin to release immediately, causing the it to become sticky. Incase of tagliatelle or noodle nest, she recommends not stirring it, lest you break open the nest.
Thus, the key ingredient in a pasta is water. If you use it right, you can also use it to make a beautiful sauce. And if you use it wrong, not only will your pasta be overcooked, but also end up being watery.
Once the pasta has boiled, Crasto ensures he saves at least a cup of water. “Pasta releases starch into the water while it cooks which helps to bind the sauce."
But how much water should you save? It depends on the recipe. For a Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, that serves two, Dane Fernandes, Executive Chef, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, adds a spoonful of the pasta water into the dish while cooking. “The pasta water you add has enough starch to coat each pasta. Along with the olive oil, it becomes an emulsion," he says. “It helps to bring the sauce together. Short and large shaped pastas tend to go well with heavier sauces, whereas thin and long pastas go well with light, delicate and oil-based sauces," shares Crasto.
Ingredient is the key
“I always follow the rule that to have the best you have to use the best," says Chef Alessandro Sandrolini, Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency Delhi. “So, ingredients should be fresh and top notch when cooking any Italian dish." Huber agrees. “Let the tart tangy flavours of the red tomatoes and the earthiness of the mushrooms shine through when you add them to your dish. In meat pastas, for example, you can add red wine to enhance the flavour of the meat,” adds Huber.
The alcohol present in the wine triggers the release of flavour molecules while its acidity helps dissolve fats, and in turn unlocks nuanced flavours. For Landucci, it is the handmade pasta, dried at low temperatures, for atleast 48 hours, that does the trick. She recommends an artisanal pasta made with old grains like senators cappelli durum wheat, a special type of wheat found in Italy that has several health benefits. “The production cost is higher, but the quality is outstanding," she says. Ingredients must be used judiciously so as to not overpower the pasta. “It is always a good idea to not overdo the garlic and spices," says Fernandes. When cooking Spaghetti Aglio e Olio for two people, he adds just a pod or two of garlic.
Time is of essence
While Landucci prepares the sauce, the pasta is cooking on another stove simultaneously. “We need to ensure that the sauce and the pasta are ready at the same time," she says. Cooking pasta well before the sauce is ready will make the pasta dry. It will begin to lose steam and all the moisture will evaporate, resulting in a drier tougher dish. Instead, if both are cooked at the same time, the starchy liquid inside the pasta will add to the creaminess. While she ladles the pasta into the bubbling water, she continues to check if the pasta is cooked al-dente, breaking a strand with her fingers. We prefer it this way so that it absorbs the sauce better and being firm, you chew it longer, making it easier to digest," adds Landucci. As soon as the pasta finishes cooking, she drains it in the colander and transfers it into the sauce and gives it a stir. The results are surprisingly beautiful and creamier.
Fernandes says, “The pasta should feel ‘to the bite’ and not mash in your palate. If the pasta label says it will take 6-8 minutes to become al-dente, I cook it only for 6 minutes. In the restaurant, once the order is punched in the pasta is blanched for another 2 minutes, till it becomes al-dente, and then I add the sauce."
Basic tomato sauce
“To make tomato sauce, you will need perfectly ripe tomatoes, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil. For the white sauce, use cream, butter and parmesan — essentials for the perfect preparation," says Sandrolini.
Pasta sauce recipe
By Calvin Crasto
2 kg Italian plum tomatoes, chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 bay leaf
8-10 basil leaves
20-30 ml olive oil
Salt to taste
750 ml water
Sauté all the vegetables on medium flame till they start to change colour. Add in the tomatoes, bay leaf and season with salt. Add water, cover with a lid and cook on a low flame, stirring occasionally every 10 minutes for at least 2 hours. You will know that the sauce is cooked once it starts giving off a sweet smell. Once the tomatoes and all the vegetables have disintegrated, add the basil leaves. Now add some basil leaves and turn off the flame. Once cooked, what you have is an aromatic, deep red, thick sauce with fragrant notes of tomato and basil.