How to cook pasta

pasta

 

There are few better ways to beat this particularly cold winter than a bowl of piping hot pasta. In fact, whatever the weather, pasta is always a favourite. The best thing about pasta is that the packet can sit in the back of your cupboard for months, waiting to be pulled out and transformed from the everyday to the sublime in a matter of minutes.

The key to a great pasta dish is good primary ingredients, and making sure that the pasta is cooked properly. There is also the great debate between fresh or dry, and which shapes to match with which sauce (see Tips below). As with most things culinary, let your tastebuds guide you – and don’t get too caught up in ‘the rules’. If it tastes good, it’s good!

There are no boundaries with pasta – it will accompany (and stretch) most ingredients without overwhelming them. Try serving pasta simply with garlic, chilli, olive oil and parsley, or spend the time to make a beautiful, hearty Bolognese sauce. A simple pesto sauce (see our recipe below) is a great standby, or you can simply toss top-quality butter through the pasta and add a little Parmesan to serve. 

TIPS

Sticking point

To avoid sticky, gluggy pasta, cook in a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water (5 to 6 litres of water to every 500 grams of pasta). The larger the pot, the quicker the pasta will return to the boil – this will help to avoid sticking. Giving the pasta a good stir in the first couple of minutes is also crucial to avoid sticking. The addition of salt will flavour the pasta as it is swelling and absorbing the water. Do not add oil to the water – this will make the pasta oily and thus difficult for the sauce to adhere to.

When it’s ready

The Italians serve their pasta al dente (literally “to the tooth”) – this does not mean sticking to the tooth, rather that the pasta provides a little resistance when you chew it. The only way to tell is to taste the pasta as you cook it – don’t rely on the packet instructions. When you drain the pasta try to reserve a little of the starchy cooking liquid – this can be added to the sauce to help loosen the consistency if necessary. Do not rinse your pasta as this will cool the pasta and remove the last remnants of starch, which help your sauce to stick. Try to add you pasta to the sauce (not the other way around) while it is hot (it will absorb the flavours better).

Shapes and flavours

Logic is key in dictating which pasta shape should be paired with which sauce. Thin, delicate pasta shapes are lovely combined with thinner, delicate sauces. Tubular or irregular-shaped pastas are best with chunky sauces (so the sauce can get caught inside the shapes). Small pasta shapes, such as risoni, are great in soups, while the smaller-scale versions of many shapes are lovely in a pasta salad (it is the ingredients that should shine in this situation – with the pasta playing second fiddle).

Fresh vs dry

Similarly to pasta shapes, the choice between fresh and dry pasta is more about matching flavours and textures than about which is superior. Fresh pasta is made with eggs and flour and is generally more delicate. It is well suited to lighter sauces, but traditionally its primary purpose is to make tortellini, ravioli and lasagne sheets. There are some brilliant dried pastas on Sydney shelves. Look for dried pasta made with durum wheat, preferably run through bronze dies – the traditional bronze dies create a slightly rough texture, helping sauce to adhere to the pasta.

 

MINI RECIPES

Fresh-egg pasta

Place 600 grams pasta flour (tipo ‘00’ – a very finely sieved flour perfect for cakes and pasta) in a bowl, or on your work surface. Make a well in the centre and crack in 6 whole eggs or, for richer pasta, use 12 egg yolks. Using a fork, mix together eggs and flour. When you can’t beat any longer, flour your hands and knead the dough until it becomes an elastic, silky texture. Cover with cling wrap and allow to rest in the fridge for half an hour before rolling into pasta. Fresh pasta requires only about half the cooking time of dried pasta. This recipe makes enough to serve 4 people.

Basil pesto

Combine two loosely packed cups fresh basil leaves, a pinch of salt, 1 crushed clove of garlic, 2 tablespoons lightly roasted pine nuts and a quarter of a cup of extra virgin olive oil in a mortar and pestle, food processor or blender. Process, stopping to scrape down the sides of the container occasionally, and add another quarter of a cup of extra virgin olive oil gradually, until you reach your desired consistency. Stir in half a cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese by hand, just before serving. Store in the refrigerator for a week or two, or in the freezer for several months (omit cheese if freezing – and drizzle top with oil to preserve). Makes 1 cup.

 

Vegetarian Lasagne

Homemade lasagne is best made on a slow Sunday afternoon as it is time consuming and requires patience. It is, however, a lot of fun, and a great thing to do with the help of the kids. This recipe makes enough for two medium-sized lasagnes (they freeze well). Feel free to add any other ingredients you like – mushrooms work well, as does grilled sweet potato, or pumpkin. Serves 8

450g fresh-egg pasta (for homemade pasta see Tips, or use store-bought fresh pasta. If using dry pasta remember to blanch uncooked pasta for approximately half the suggested cooking time, before using)

2 eggplants, finely sliced

2 zucchini, finely sliced

1 bunch spinach, rinsed

150g ricotta

1 x large ball of buffalo mozzarella, torn up

Parmesan cheese, to grate over the top

1 bunch fresh sage leaves

For the tomato sauce –

Olive oil

3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 sprig of rosemary, or a couple of dried bay leaves

3 x 400g tins of quality tinned tomatoes

For the white sauce –

1 litre milk

1 sprig fresh parsley

pinch of nutmeg

½ an onion, peeled and sliced

4 peppercorns

80g butter

70g plain flour

150g Parmesan cheese

sea salt and freshly cracked pepper

Method

For the tomato sauce, heat a pan and add the oil. Gently fry the garlic until it is lightly coloured, add rosemary or bay leaves and the tins of tomatoes. Cook tomatoes gently, with the lid on, for around an hour.

Combine milk, parsley, nutmeg, onion and peppercorn in a separate pot and slowly bring to the boil. Strain ingredients and return to a clean pot.

Melt the butter in a third pan on medium heat and add the flour to make a roux. Stir the roux rapidly, not letting the butter burn (you want to cook out the flavour of the flour without letting the colour of the mixture go beyond the colour of a weak latte). Add the strained milk mixture to the roux one ladleful at a time, being careful to stir as you go. The white sauce is ready when you have a smooth, thick sauce. Allow to come to the boil gently, then remove from heat, add Parmesan and season well with salt and pepper.

Drizzle the eggplant and zucchini with olive oil and season with salt and pepper before cooking on a chargrill pan or barbeque, until you have nice grill lines. Meanwhile wash the spinach and wilt in a frying pan using a dash of oil, and the water that is still clinging to the leaves. Drain and squeeze out any excess liquid. Combine spinach with ricotta, season well and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Butter a large baking dish (or two medium-sized ones). Start with a layer of pasta, top with eggplant, zucchini, spinach, tomato sauce, white sauce, a little Parmesan and salt and pepper. Continue to layer until the dish is full, finishing with the white sauce. Tear your mozzarella over the top of the lasagne, sprinkle with a little extra Parmesan and top with sage leaves.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until the lasagne is cooked through. You can brown the top of the lasagne with a short burst from the grill, if required.

 

Orecchiette with broccoli and cauliflower

The smoky anchovies and the heat of the chillies in this recipe are beautiful with the broccoli. The combination is traditional Italian, and will change the way you think about broccoli forever. This recipe was inspired by Maurizio Terzini’s cookbook Something Italian. Serves 4

200g (small head) broccoli, florets separated

200g (1/2 head) cauliflower, florets separated

50ml olive oil

1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced

1 small red chilli, finely chopped

2-4 large anchovy fillets in oil

¼ bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

300g orecchiette pasta

50g grated Parmesan

25 ml extra virgin olive oil

1 lemon, cut in wedges

Method

Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil and add broccoli. Cook until tender (6-8 minutes). Drain, setting aside 1/3 cup of the cooking liquid.

Add fresh water to the pan and bring to the boil, when boiling, add cauliflower and cook for 8 minutes, or until tender, then drain. Set aside.

In a large frying pan, heat olive oil over medium heat, then add garlic, chilli and anchovies, breaking up and mashing the anchovies as they heat through. Be careful not to allow the garlic to brown. Add broccoli and mash well with the back of a wooden spoon. When the broccoli has heated through, add cauliflower, half the parsley and the reserved cooking liquid and a squeeze of lemon juice. Bring mixture to the boil and season with salt and pepper. Remove pan from heat and set aside.

Bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and add orecchiette. Cook until al dente, then drain, reserving a little of the cooking liquid.

Return sauce to heat and toss in pasta, heat through. Stir in Parmesan and remaining parsley. Add a little reserved pasta water if the sauce is too thick.

Serve in warmed bowls with remaining lemon wedges on the side.

 

Pasta salad

This pasta salad, inspired by Jamie Oliver, is light and flavourful. The cooked garlic cloves add a gentle sweetness to the dressing, while the combination of primary ingredients look fantastic. It will keep in the fridge, allowing the flavours to develop, and taste great the next day for lunch.

350g small shell pasta

3 cloves garlic, peeled

½ punnet cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered

½ punnet of yellow or green cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered

150g kalamata olives, cheeks removed from pip

1 cucumber, finely diced

1 small Italian salami, finely diced

1 bunch chives, finely chopped

½ bunch basil, torn

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons best-quality red wine vinegar

Method

Bring a large pot of boiling water to a rolling boil. Add whole garlic cloves, a big pinch of salt and pasta. Cook pasta until al dente. When cooked, drain, drizzle with olive oil, toss to coat (this will help prevent sticking) and set aside to cool.

Using cooked garlic cloves, smash into a paste with a good pinch of sea salt. Whisk (or shake in a jar) the olive oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.

Combine tomatoes, olives, cucumber and salami in a bowl, add cooled pasta and toss to combine. Add chopped chives and basil. Drizzle with dressing and serve.

 

 

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