The Italian job
PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:54 28 March 2014
Carol Wilson gives us some easy and delicious pasta recipes
Pasta to Italians is more than just a food – it’s a way of life and an essential part of their culture. Cheap and simple to make, pasta has always been combined with whatever is available – cheese, mushrooms, meat or poultry, depending on the income of the family. On special occasions and holy days, home-made pasta is an important part of the celebrations.
Pasta has been enjoyed in Italy since antiquity. It’s believed that the conquering Arabs were responsible for introducing pasta to Sicily, from where it gradually spread to the rest of Italy, overtaking rice and polenta to become the staple food. The oldest known word for pasta is ‘maccarunne’ from the Sicilian ‘maccare’ (to crush) which referred to the crushing of the wheat grain to make flour. Sicilians still enjoy a very thin pasta which even today is called by its old Arab name of ‘itriya’.
Pasta must surely be the original fast food as it cooks in a just few minutes and is the basis of many appetizing dishes. At its most basic, pasta is simply a paste of flour, water and salt, although some pasta doughs are enriched with eggs. The finest pasta is made from 100% durum wheat – a hard wheat with a high gluten content which gives pasta its slightly brittle texture. Wholewheat pasta is made with wholewheat or buckwheat flour and contains more fibre, vitamins and minerals and is chewier than white flour pasta. All pasta is high in energy-giving carbohydrates and contains vitamins and minerals, while good quality pasta can contain up to 13% protein.
Pasta made from corn is available for those intolerant to wheat or gluten. Coloured pasta is made by adding ingredients such as spinach (green), tomato (red), orange (pumpkin), purple (beetroot), and black (squid ink) and looks very impressive at dinner parties.
The first commercially made pasta appeared in Amalfi in 1000AD and 700 years later there were 60 pasta shops in Naples. By 1785 this number had grown to 280! Over the years, particularly in Naples, methods of drying and storing pasta were perfected, which led to the creation of an extremely successful local industry – the production of high quality dried pasta made from durum wheat.
Choosing the correct shape and texture of pasta is important because it influences the best type of sauce to complement it. Different types of pasta collect and hold various amounts of sauce. Long pastas, such as spaghetti (the name means ‘thin string’) are best served with a smooth tomato or creamy sauce, which will cling to the pasta, while cut pastas and pasta shapes are just right for heavy sauces containing chunks of meat, fish or vegetables and also for baked dishes.
Every region in Italy has developed its own particular type of pasta, eg orecchiette (little ears) from Puglia, which look exactly like tiny ears and which traditionally are handmade with great dexterity by local women. Cooked orecchiette are mixed with cooked vegetables, olive oil and tomatoes or added to stews. Maccheroni alla Chitara is a famous speciality of the Abruzzo region, which is made by rolling out pasta dough over a row of thin wires stretched on a wooden frame like a guitar. Emilia-Romagna is famous for its fresh egg pastas which come in an amazing variety of shapes, eg hats, butterflies, rings, scarves, etc and are stuffed with a selection of tasty fillings.
Pasta has a central role in Italian celebrations and many time-honoured dishes are still prepared with fresh home-made pasta and served with a richer sauce than usual as a tribute to the special occasion.
In England, macaroni was known in the 16th century and a recipe for the now well-known macaroni cheese was given by Elizabeth Raffald in 1769. Spaghetti was first recorded here in the 19th century, but was little used or well known until after the Second World War when tinned spaghetti became available.
Fresh pasta can now be found in most major supermarkets and Italian delicatessens and takes just a couple of minutes to cook. Dried pasta doesn’t take much longer to cook and has the advantage that it keeps well and makes a convenient store cupboard standby.
Always use your largest pan when cooking even a small quantity of pasta – plenty of boiling water is needed to allow the pasta to swell and move freely or it will become sticky as it releases its starch. A spoonful of olive oil added to the water should prevent this and will also stop the pasta boiling over. Cooking times vary with the type of pasta used, but it should be al dente (literally ‘to the tooth’, firm enough to bite into).
Spaghetti alla carbonara
The name of this dish may refer to the carbonari – charcoal burners who possibly took their Umbrian dish to Rome. An alternative theory is that the recipe is fairly new and was inspired by the American GIs and their bacon and egg rations.
175g/6oz pancetta cubetti or rindless streaky bacon, diced
1 clove garlic, chopped (optional)
4 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons grated Pecorino cheese
4-6 tablespoons double or whipping cream (optional)
Cook the pancetta or bacon in a wide pan over a low heat until the fat runs, then add the garlic, increase the heat and cook until the pancetta is well browned and the garlic soft. Remove from the heat. Cook the spaghetti in plenty of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and put into the pan with the pancetta and garlic off the heat. Stir in the eggs, a pinch of salt, plenty of pepper, Parmesan cheese and cream (if using). Stir until creamy – the heat of the spaghetti will lightly cook the eggs. Turn onto hot serving plates and sprinkle with the Pecorino cheese.
Pasta with breadcrumbs
Breadcrumbs were often used instead of grated cheese on pasta if the family couldn’t afford to buy cheese. This dish contains cheese as well as breadcrumbs and is a delicious example of how frugal ingredients can be used to create a tasty and appetising dish.
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
225g/8oz ripe plum tomatoes, quartered and seeds removed
10 fresh basil leaves
110g/4oz stale dry breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
450g/1lb any small tubular shaped pasta
Heat the oil in a large pan and cook the garlic until soft but not browned. Add the tomatoes and basil and season to taste with salt. Stir well and cover the pan. Simmer gently for about 30 minutes, adding water if necessary. Meanwhile mix together the breadcrumbs, cheese and parsley. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water, according to the directions on the pack, until just tender. Drain well and return to the pan. Pour in the tomato sauce, stirring to mix and divide between four serving dishes. Sprinkle each with the crumb mixture and serve immediately. Serves 4.
Simple Neapolitan pasta sauce
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves chopped
1 425g/15oz tin chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 tablespoon of fresh oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil or 1 tablespoon fresh basil
2 teaspoons Molasses sugar
salt and black pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a pan and gently fry the garlic until slightly browned. Remove from the heat and add the rest of the ingredients. Return to the heat and simmer gently for 25 minutes, stirring frequently until all liquid has disappeared from the surface. If using fresh herbs, add these after the sauce has been cooking for 15 minutes. Serve with freshly cooked pasta and freshly grated Parmesan.
Use any small pasta shapes, such as bows, spirals, shells or twists. This cool refreshing salad can be eaten alone or with cold meats or cheese.
225g/8oz small pasta shapes
1 avocado pear
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3 sticks celery, diced
1 eating apple
200ml/7floz extra virgin olive oil
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons chopped chives
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and rinse under cold running water then drain again thoroughly. Peel and stone the avocado and cut into cubes. Toss the cubes in the lemon juice to prevent browning. Core the apple and dice it, then mix well with the avocado, celery and pasta. Place the remaining ingredients into a large screw-top jar and shake well to blend. Toss the salad ingredients in the dressing and serve.
Dolce di taglierini
An unusual cake for a special occasion. It is made with a fine, thin type of pasta called capelli d’angelo or angel hair pasta. You can use vermicelli instead if you can’t fine angel hair. This cake is always served hot or warm, as it becomes heavy when cold.
6 eggs, separated
220g/7oz golden caster sugar
225g/8oz capelli d'angelo or vermicelli
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch ground cloves
pinch grated nutmeg
50g/2oz plain flour
50g/2oz sultanas soaked in hot water for up to 1 hour
225g/8oz apricot conserve
Beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick and mousse-like. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 2 minutes then drain and rinse under cold running water and leave to drain. Beat the ricotta into the egg yolk mixture with the spices and salt. Gradually stir in the flour, then add the soaked sultanas and pasta. Whisk the egg whites until stiff but not dry and gently fold them into the mixture, a little at a time. Pour into a buttered 23cm/9inch round cake tin, base-lined with greased greaseproof paper, and bake 1-11/2 hours, Gas 6/200ºC. Combine the honey and apricot conserve in a pan over a low heat until melted. Remove the cake from the tin and spread the top with some of the honey mixture. Pour the remaining sauce into a jug and serve with the cake. Serves 6.
This article is from the June 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
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