As I put together a quick pasta for his tiffin this morning, my husband was busy ticking of some of his favourite pasta meals I make and it struck me, pasta - usually drenched in white sauce and smothered in cheese - is everywhere these days but this incredibly easy to cook but the potential of this versatile ingredient has barely been explored. The fact is Pasta can be the base for an amazing spectrum of dishes from soups and salads to whole meals in one.
I always use imported Italian dried pastas. These stretch the budget somewhat but a 500 gm packet usually makes it possible to stretch dinner into lunch. But any Italian dried pasta is preferable to a domestic equivalent because besides the fact that Italians do pasta so well they would never sell an inferior product these pastas are also made from Durum wheat Semolina which is high in protein and gluten. Local pastas like Bambino and others of its ilk are usually just maida, with no nutritional benefit and also fall apart on cooking!
Pasta should be cooked in plenty of well-salted water aim for enough water so your pasta has enough room to “swim” and doesn’t end up sticking together and for saltiness the equivalent of seawater. Once you have added pasta to the boiling water, stir it well so it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Check on your pasta so you can tell it’s ready when it is “al dente”, or tender to the bite but with a slight resistance. Only mix your pasta with it’s sauce when you are ready to eat. When ready to eat “refresh” past by immersing briefly in boiling water and then mix with the sauce.
Pasta should be integrated with the sauce so toss the pasta with the sauce well just before serving over a low flame. The shape of your pasta will determine the sort of sauce you serve it with - light thin sauces are better for delicate long pasta like spaghetti or vermicelli and thick meaty sauces for thick, short pasta, like penne and fusilli. That said sauce for pasta should be of a thick almost jammy, chutney-like consistency with no watery residue collecting at the bottom of a bowl of pasta. Serve pasta in wide shallow soup plates like the Italians do - it makes it easy to eat. Pasta is often served with Parmesan and its will be great if you have some handy but ready cheese will do in a pinch. Just avoid that pre-grated stuff you get – it’s not worth the price you pay for it.
I like to keep cooked pasta in the fridge. Just toss in olive oil once it is cooked and stoer in an airtight box. It makes for a great way to bulk up salads. Combine lettuce, steamed diced beans, finely chopped leafy veges, fresh herbs, cooked sweetcorn, chunks of carrot, and whatever else takes your fancy and toss with pasta in a dressing of honey, lemon juice cooked, chilli powder and pepper. Add finely chopped green chillies for added fire!
At the end of long days I like to toss hot penne liberally with olive oil, finely chopped garlic, lemon zest, plenty of lemon juice, parmesan, freshly ground black pepper and salt. Sometimes I will add several handfuls of rocket or spinach leaves if I have some. Just mix well so the rocket wilts and serve immediately.
Another quickie pasta I sometimes do is Ligurian pasta dish in which I add chunks of peeled potatoes (they’ll take as long as the pasta to cook) to the boiling water with the pasta. Then about 5 minutes before they're done I add a cup each of trimmed French beans, peas, spinach, snow peas and any other tender greens I have to hand. Everything gets cooked almost together and after draining it out I stir in a good-quality basil pesto or sauce of my choice while it is still warm. It’s great with lots of grated parmesan.
A variaton of the above is a rich stew in which I cook add the chunks of peeled potatoes (they’ll take as long as the pasta to cook) to boiling stock spiked with ginger garlic and chillies, adding whatever vegetables I have handy carrots, beans etc 5 minutes before the pasta is done. Everything gets cooked almost together but this time I don’t drain it, just stir in salt, fresh herbs EVOO lots and lots of freshly ground pepper and serve steaming hot.
The beauty of Pasta is that even if I have nothing else at home, I will always have garlic for garlic pasta! Its easy peasy to make too! Just heat 1 cup olive oil till warm (not smoking), add a handful of broken dry red chillies and half a cup of coarsely crushed garlic cloves, (it will splutter like the dickens so keep covered). Give everything a few minutes to come together and when the garlic is browning at the edges remove pan from the flame. Leave for half an hour so flavours can develop and meanwhile cook pasta, (spaghetti works best but whatever you have will do in a pinch). As soon as the pasta is cooked al dente drain out the water, return to pot and replace on flame. Add salt to taste and Garlic chilli oil. At this point I like to add a cup and a half of finely chopped fresh herbs (coriander, parsley, green garlic, celery or a bit of them all) for zest but finely chopped tomatoes, olives and grated parmesan are also options. Toss well, serve as warm as possible and watch it disappear.