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Until I met Fidz, my idea of eating pasta was to make a sauce and to simply open my kitchen cupboard and choose whichever pasta might be on the shelf to go with it. Wrong. It wasn’t until I started living in Italy that I came to realize how carefully people match pasta with sauce. Choosing the right pasta to go with a particular sauce has rules and Italians actually follow them!
First of all, there are two types of pasta, egg-based (non-durum wheat) and water-based (durum wheat). The egg-based pastas traditionally come from the north where originally, wheat grown here had less gluten (the component in wheat that affects elasticity and stretching). Hence the pasta could not be rolled in long sheets and cut in long thin strips to make spaghetti but was better suited to pasta that is rolled out in smaller sheets and cut in ribbons to make fettucine, lasagna, tortellini, ravioli etc.
Water-based pasta on the other hand, originates from the south and historically, being of a higher gluten content, was sturdier and could be extruded into shapes like maccheroni and penne. By the way if you order penne in Italy, make very sure that you pronounce the double ‘n’. A single ‘n’ as in pene, means penis! But I digress……………Pasta existed in Italy long before Marco Polo, contrary to the belief that he introduced it here from China. However, it was the Arabs in Sicily in the 8th century who introduced dried pasta which allowed it to be stored, carried on long journeys and prepared quickly thus turning it into a staple food.
As for the marriage of pasta and sauce, it’s very confusing especially as there are hundreds of pasta shapes, many with charming names, which vary from region to region. All I can tell you is that mini shapes like orzo, farfallette (mini butterfly bows), annelli (rings) go in broths and soups. Egg-based pasta is generally used for butter or cream sauces. Stuffed pasta like tortellini or ravioli is served with very light butter based sauces which do not take away flavour from the stuffing within the pasta. Medium weight strands like spaghetti, go with a sauce which sticks and slips along the strand like simple olive oil with chili and/or garlic, or sea-food sauces based on olive oil and tomato paste. Heavy chunky sauces go with tubular shapes like penne (quills) so that the sauce can get inside the tubes. Scooped shapes like orecchiette (ears), are good with drier sauces which can be trapped within the scoop. Twisted shapes go with pesto or heavier cheese sauces which can get caught within the twist. There are endless and particular combinations but basically, think about how the pasta will catch the sauce and whether the pasta is egg- or water-based.
A few tips about cooking pasta. Use plenty of boiling salted water and for most pasta, cooking time will be between 8 to 10 minutes (usually indicated on the package). Never over-cook pasta, it should always be ‘al dente’ (basically its core should remain a bit harder than the outside). Always keep a little of the water when you drain the pasta as this can be added after the pasta and sauce are mixed if the combination ends up being too dry. If parmesan is added at the end, it will become even drier and the best way to moisten is with the cooking water.
Finally, if you come to Italy and see ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ on a menu, walk out of the restaurant as it is most certainly geared towards tourists. This dish is an American-Italian invention and does not exist here as such. Incidentally, neither does Caesar’s salad!