Pasta and the Italian kitchen

Pasta and the Italian kitchen

By
Antonio Carluccio
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849493703
Photographer
Laura Edwards

In the Italian kitchen, simplicity reigns. There is a basic larder of foodstuffs – all of them of the best affordable quality – and fresh foods are shopped for every day. There are few complicated machines or tools, and a minimum of kitchen aids. Italian food is not complicated to cook, so it does not need complicated preparations. Here I give you a few ideas about the basics you might need for all your pasta-making, cooking and enjoying.

The larder

As Italian cooking is based on fresh ingredients, there are not many items you will need to keep in stock on a permanent basis. But I like the idea of always having something on hand with which to cook an impromptu meal for friends – pasta, the subject of this book, is the handiest of all in this instance – so I must admit to having quite an extensive larder!

Pasta

I keep probably far too many varieties of pasta – often I am testing them in combination with a new sauce – but I would suggest that you have at least four in your larder. It is handy to have a packet of pasta per brodo, some short dried pasta for use in soups: something like stelline or tubettini, for instance, or orzo. I would always have a packet of spaghetti – it is my favourite – but linguine would also be good. I like to have a packet of larger-shaped dried pasta as well, something like pennoni or conchiglie, and I would have a packet of egg tagliatelle nests too. Having these readily available means that you can always knock something up for a quick lunch or supper. Keep an eye on the sell-by dates: pasta lasts a long time, but it can lose flavour with age.

Flour

If you plan to make your own pasta at home – and I hope this book will inspire you to do so – you will need to buy some Italian ‘00’ flour. This is extra fine, finer than typical plain flour, although the latter will do at a pinch. If you plan to make some Puglian pasta, you will need to buy some durum wheat semolina flour. Good supermarkets – and the internet – will be able to supply both of these flours.

Oils and vinegars

These will be vital in making sauces for pastas. Most Italian kitchens will have at least three oils: firstly a seed oil, like sunflower, is good for basic frying; secondly, a good olive oil, also for frying, when the wonderful sweetness of olive is required; and lastly, a very good-quality extra virgin olive oil, for making dressings, and for that last-minute drizzle, which adds so much flavour to many a soup or pasta dish. (And I must admit to a luxury oil, truffle, which is wonderful used in the occasional pasta sauce.) As for vinegars, I would have a good red wine vinegar – preferably made from Chianti – a good white wine vinegar, and a not-too-old balsamic.

Tomatoes

I would always recommend keeping at least a couple of cans of whole, crushed or chopped tomatoes in your pasta larder, with perhaps a jar of good passata and a small can of tomato paste.

Salt and pepper

These are probably the most used flavour enhancers in all cooking, particularly salt. Salt was the first preserving agent used by man, and is still used in that role in Italy, in preserving fish, capers and in the many pork products. Italian salt is produced mainly in Trapani, Sicily, and parts of Sardinia, from salt pans: flat areas are flooded with sea water, then the sun evaporates the water. I would always use coarse sea salt, both in cooking and as a topping (for focaccia for instance).

Peppercorns, black, white and green, are the fruit of a vine grown in India, Vietnam and Indonesia. Black and white peppercorns are used a great deal in Italian cooking: in stocks, to season (but lightly), in salamis and on hams. The most important thing to remember about pepper is to buy good peppercorns, and you must also grind them only as needed, for they will lose heat and flavour if ground too long in advance.

Herbs and spices

The Italians use surprisingly few dried herbs, although fresh basil, parsley, sage, mint and rosemary are always recurring in my shopping lists and in my recipes. But once again, we use them sparingly, not generously. Spices were once used widely in early Italian cuisine, and we seem to be taking to them again now (see my recipe for curried red mullet).

Chillies, however, have been a constant throughout the centuries, ever since their introduction from the Americas in the 16th century. They are used fresh and dried, particularly in the south of the country, where they flourish in the warm sun. Capers, another vital Italian spice flavouring, come from the north and west as well, principally from two islands to the north and west of Sicily, Lipari and Pantelleria. They can be found bottled in salt or in brine; I prefer the former, although they do need to be desalted before use.

Garlic and onions

These are much loved in Italian cooking, and in particular in many pasta sauces. Fresh of course, they will be of the best quality – have you ever seen an Italian housewife sniffing and prodding a head of garlic to check its quality before buying? Italy has several special types of onion, such as the onion of Tropea – sweet in flavour, long in shape, and a brilliant red in colour – but mild red or white onions or even shallots would do instead.

Funghi porcini

I am passionate about fungi in general and about funghi porcini, or ceps, in particular. The latter are dried, and are an essential in your pasta larder: rehydrated in water, they can add extraordinary flavour to many a sauce. Porcini stock cubes are also available now, in better delis and supermarkets. Keep opened packets in the fridge.

Anchovies

Preserved anchovies are a major flavour enhancer of many Italian dishes. You will find fillets in cans, preserved in oil or whole fish in jars, preserved in salt. I prefer the latter, though they are fiddly to debone and desalt, but the others are less so and are still very tasty.

Preserved meats

The Italians have a multitude of preserved, salted or air-cured meats and salami that are very useful as a stand-by snack and, inevitably, in pasta sauce making. I always have some pancetta, our Italian bacon, which I freeze in those packets of cubes, or buy sliced from the delicatessen. In days gone by I would have had lardo, a type of very tasty salted and air-cured lard or pork fat, an ideal addition to the oil, garlic and onion fried at the beginning of a delicious pasta sauce. Another similar meat is Speck, the Tyrolean counterpart to lardo.

Cheeses

Italy has a wealth of glorious cheeses, many of which are used in pasta sauces, pasta fillings and as a final flavouring for a finished dish. The soft cheeses such as ricotta, mascarpone and mozzarella are obviously not standard larder items: you would have to buy them specially for a dish, chill them and use them quickly. Hard Italian cheeses will last longer, and my pasta kitchen would never be without Parmesan or, second-best but still delicious, Grana Padano or pecorino (Sardo or Romano). These are the prime cheeses to add wonderful flavour to a stuffed pasta filling, or to grate onto a dish of pasta at the end. Keep these cheeses wrapped in foil in the fridge.

Pasta-making equipment

You don’t really need to have any special equipment to make your pasta and you will probably already possess many of the tools you will find most useful. I am thinking about a wooden chopping board, a good long wooden rolling pin, a large steel saucepan (with a lid) for cooking the pasta, and a large colander through which to drain it. Ideally the pan should be larger at the base than at the top: this enables the water the pasta is cooked in to remain at the same temperature, thus helping the pasta to cook perfectly. Other helpful items you may already have are a grater for cheese and a pasta scoop or spoon, or tongs.

If you are keen on making your own pasta at home, you might need a larger board than the one you already have, and of course you might want to buy a manual pasta-making machine such as ‘Imperia’: these range in price according to function. A pastry-cutting wheel will be useful for some of the shapes, while specialist shops often sell ravioli wheels.

You could buy a raviolatrice, which is like a rectangular grid over which you place one length of pasta. You press the pasta carefully down into the square ravioli moulds, then fill the moulds with some of your filling. Then you cover the moulds with another length of rectangular pasta. Roll over this with your rolling pin, which will cut the dough into perfect ravioli shapes. Remove each raviolo carefully and place on a floured surface, ready for the filling.

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