I may be stating the obvious, but pasta in southern Italy is as firmly ingrained in the culture as turkey at Thanksgiving is in the U.S. Except pasta appears every day at the Pugliese table, unlike (happily) that ubiquitous American turkey. Like polenta to northern Italians and beans to the Tuscans, dried pasta is almost iconic south of Rome. And we notice it all the more because we’re trying to wean ourselves off of our daily fix. It seems that new research has helped us understand what we probably knew all along. As a result of the proliferation of highly refined strains of wheat now used in just about every prepared, wheat-based product including pasta, we’ve learned that most commercially available dried pasta may actually be physiologically addictive. I can’t imagine a worse revelation because I am truly, deeply and irretrievably fond of pasta.
While there is a tendency to vilify all wheat-based products based on new findings about the spectrum of gluten intolerance and its impact on overall health, we’re taking the news with a great big grain of sale grosso (rock salt). Nevertheless, we have made some intake adjustments of late. We seek out pasta made locally from hard, preferably organic durum wheat. We look for pasta and other products made from traditional, unmodified strains of wheat like Senatore Capelli in Puglia. We’re also careful to seek out pasta that is extruded using bronze rather than Teflon-coated dies. Bronze creates ever so subtle ridges in the extruded pasta, which ensures that your sauce of choice will cling to each piece or strand. We also look for pasta that is produced the old-fashioned way; that is, dried slowly at low temperature. This preserves the nutty flavor of the wheat. Choosing your pasta carefully ensures that it is more than just a vehicle for the sauce; it has a deeply satisfying aroma and flavor all its own. And in our case, it means you can eat less and feel thoroughly satisfied.
We’ve also explored pasta made from farina di ceci neri (black chick pea flour) in an effort to inject a little more complexity and a dash of protein into the mix. It’s delicious: earthy, slightly grainy and a perfect foil for the frutti di mare (mixed shellfish) we paired with it. I still can’t quite get behind commercially produced pasta integrale (whole wheat pasta). I’d rather not eat pasta at all than chew through some of these miserable candidates. Handmade pastas like orecchiette or strascinati made with a mix of whole wheat and semolina flours, on the other hand, are deliciously toothsome, so it’s worth experimenting a little.
When we make pasta now, we make sure that it is either homemade (that’s a whole different post) or top quality dried pasta. What is meant by top quality? First of all, it should come from Italy and it should be made with organic or sustainably grown wheat. Some Italian manufacturers are now importing wheat from Russia, Canada and the U.S. and quite a lot of it is made from GMO wheat, so don’t be fooled. Make sure that the pasta is produced artisanally; that is, made in smaller quantities, extruded through bronze dies and dried slowly at lower temperatures. Some brands to consider that are available in the U.S. are Latini, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Cavalieri (from Puglia) and Martelli. And yes, pasta made this way will cost more than industrially-produced pasta, but you’ll taste the difference and eat less because it is so very much more satisfying.
Since we’ve been living here, I have learned restraint in terms of pasta saucing. Use fewer, better ingredients and pair the sauce appropriately with the pasta. For example, sauces that are creamy love to cling to the ridges of penne rigate (ridged pasta tubes) or the whorls of fusilli (corkscrew shaped pasta). Tomato-based sauces are particularly suited to pasta lunga (long pasta) like cappellini, spaghetti and bucatini. Are there exceptions? A voglia (you bet)! I will never remember all the rules but am confident that my neighbors here will set me straight.
Now that you’ve found the right pasta, how can you avoid common pasta tragedies in the kitchen? The worst infractions involve cooking time, sauce quantity and portion size. You already know that Italians prefer their pasta cooked al dente (to the teeth), and you will, too, once you taste it. Pasta cooked this way stands up to sauce and it much more appealing to eat. But how do you know when your pasta has arrived at al dente status? Tasting is involved in getting it right. Use the pasta package timing instructions as a guideline, but start tasting a few minutes before the suggested cooking time is up. You’ll know your pasta is perfect when you can see the very faintest, slightly white center in a strand of spaghetti. And when you taste it, the pasta should offer the very slightest resistance at its core.
Don’t over sauce your pasta. You’ll miss the subtlety of flavor found in the top quality pasta you just bought. The sauce should just coat each piece of pasta, with a very little bit left over. Pools of extra sauce are unappetizing, turning your perfect plate of pasta into a soupy mess. Never serve more than 100 grams (1/5 of a package) of pasta per person, and that’s only if you’re serving pasta as the main course. If you are serving pasta as a first course or plan to have lots of antipasti or a second course, 75 to 80 grams per person is perfect.
Use your biggest pot to cook pasta. For a 1 lb. box or bag of pasta, a minimum of five quarts of water is required and more is better. Bring the water to a boil and add salt just before you butta la pasta (throw in the pasta), adding enough salt so that the water tastes like the sea. Drain your pasta into a colander when it is al dente, but don’t be overly vigilant about removing all the water. The starchy pasta-cooking water helps the sauce amalgamate, transforming it into a creamy, clingy sauce that naps each piece of pasta perfectly. And get into the habit of saving a cup or so of the pasta cooking water just before you drain the pasta. When you’re tossing the pasta with the sauce, you may notice that it could benefit from a little more creaminess. Add a tablespoon or two of the pasta water you’ve saved at a time, gently stirring or tossing the pasta as you go.
Lately we’ve rediscovered the joy of late summer tomatoes and are using them in just about everything. They are at their most exquisite, though, paired with spaghetti in the simplest of sauces. Today we decided to make things just a little more complex by resurrecting a Pugliese pasta classic that relies upon perfect tomatoes and fagiolini pinti, a local green bean that it quite thin, long and every so slightly tinted in purple. You could substitute haricots verts, the very thin, French style green beans, for the fagiolini pinti, but don’t attempt this recipe with Chinese long beans. They’re much too thick and fibrous to be successful here. We love this recipe because we can use less pasta while the earthy, slightly vegetal taste of the fagiolini pinti adds another dimension to the simple perfection of the tomato sauce. If you can find it, use cacioricotta, the classic southern Italian spring and summer cheese that is a cross between a ricotta and a cheese, before serving. Cacioricotta is often made with a mixture of sheep’s, goat’s and cow’s milk and it has a splendid melting quality that makes it perfect with pasta. Ricotta salata is also a good choice and is probably easier to find in the U.S. Parmigiano tastes great, too, but is not typical for this dish.
Spaghetti al Pomodoro e Fagiolini Pinti—Spaghetti with Tomato and Green Bean Sauce
1 package (500 grams) dried spaghetti (use a great artisanal brand from Italy like Latini, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Cavalieri or Martelli)
1/4 cup top quality extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, slightly crushed with the flat side of a chef’s knife
Between 1 1/2 and 2 lbs. tomatoes, cut in half if smaller or in quarters if larger
10-12 leaves of fresh basil
¼ to 1 lb. fagiolini pinti or haricots verts (very thin green beans), stem end broken off
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Cacioricotta, ricotta salata or parmigiano cheese, grated for serving
Heat the olive oil in a wide sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the crushed garlic clove and allow to gently simmer in the oil, coloring the clove ever so slightly. Don’t allow the clove to turn brown or burn.
When the garlic clove is just barely golden (about 15 minutes), add the tomatoes and salt to taste. Raise the heat and allow the tomatoes to simmer until they start to break down, creating a saucy liquid with very soft pieces of tomatoes throughout (about 20 minutes). Towards the end of the cooking time, roughly tear the basil leaves into smaller pieces and add to the tomato sauce.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to the boil. When it begins to boil, add enough salt to cause the water to taste like the sea. Add the green beans and cook until al dente (about 6-7 minutes). Using tongs, remove the green beans to a waiting colander and reserve.
Bring the green bean cooking water back to the boil and add the spaghetti. With a wooden spoon, stir the spaghetti vigorously so that they are quickly submerged into the boiling water. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, but watch it closely so it doesn’t boil over. Stir often during these first minutes of cooking to keep the spaghetti strands from sticking to one another.
Start to taste the spaghetti after about six minutes. When there is just a hint of resistance at the core of the piece of spaghetti you taste and you can see an ever so faint, tiny white center, the spaghetti should be drained into a waiting colander. Before you drain, scoop out about a cup of the spaghetti cooking water and reserve.
Quickly add the drained spaghetti and the reserved green beans to the tomato sauce in the sauté pan. Using tongs, gently lift clumps of the pasta to toss, incorporating the tomato sauce and the green beans as you go. If the sauce seems slightly dry, add a few tablespoons of the reserved pasta cooking water and continue to toss gently.
Serve the spaghetti by using tongs to place spaghetti, green beans and sauce in warmed pasta bowls. Top each serving with a little of the saucy tomato liquid and a piece of tomato or two. Scatter freshly grated cacioricotta, ricotta salata or parmigiano on top and serve.
Makes six servings.
Note: This recipe is great for vegetarians; omit the sprinkling of cheese before service and it is perfect for vegans, too.