The pasta code

The pasta code

Antonio Carluccio
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Laura Edwards


How much pasta?

For small portions, for a starter, allow 50g dried or 90g fresh pasta per person. For normal portions, for a lunch with a salad, say, cook about 70–80g dried or 100–110g fresh pasta per person. For larger portions – for growing teenagers or athletes – I would use from 100–110g dried or 130–150g fresh pasta per person. Everything depends, of course, on the quality and shape of the pasta, and on appetite!

The saucepan

The pan in which you boil the pasta must be large – broad as well as high – because you will be using a lot of water. Ideally the pan should be larger at the base than at the top, which helps retain the water temperature. You also need a lid: you have to cover the pan briefly once the pasta has been added, in order to bring the water back to boiling point as quickly as possible. The lid is then taken off during the pasta cooking.

The water…

Use 1 litre water per 100g pasta. You need at least this amount because of the starch the pasta gives out in cooking. If there were too small a quantity of water, the dissolving starch would be re-absorbed by the pasta. The water must be boiling vigorously when the pasta is added.

…or stock

You could use a good homemade chicken stock instead of water to cook fine long pasta or small shapes, which will make the pasta taste better; for many soups or minestroni, this is the standard way of cooking the pasta content. Use stock in the same proportions as water, and bring it to the boil before adding the pasta.

The salt

Add 10g salt per litre of water just before it comes to the boil and the pasta is added. Use coarse sea salt if possible. A stock, if previously unseasoned, will need much the same salt quantity as water, but do be careful as of course you are probably going to be drinking the stock.

The cooking

When the water comes to the boil, add small pasta shapes all at once, and stir after 20–30 seconds. Cover until the water comes back to the boil. Remove the lid and cook the pasta for from 2–3 minutes for fresh homemade and up to 18–20 minutes for dried non-egg pasta (always follow the directions on the packet), most Pugliese pastas and some dried filled pastas. (Generally speaking, dried pasta takes twice the cooking time allowed for fresh.) If you are cooking longer strands, put them into the boiling water in bunches, never breaking the strands. If your pot is tall enough, as the pasta at the bottom softens, push it down with a wooden fork until fully covered with water. Stir as above, and cook for the appropriate length of time.

Adding oil

You don’t need to add oil to a pan of pasta unless you are cooking pasta sheets like lasagne, which might stick together: to prevent this, add the sheets one by one to the oiled water so that the oil coats the lasagne surface. Otherwise, to prevent pasta sticking together, you should stir once or twice during cooking, using a wooden fork.

The al dente test

This can never be precise: al dente means literally ‘to the tooth’, which suggests not stiff, not soft, but pliable and cooked through, with no chalky core at the centre. Test one or two pieces of pasta towards the end of cooking to see if it is to your liking: remove a piece or a strand with your wooden fork, and cool a little before tasting. Most Italians like it al dente, still with that light resistance to the tooth; the Neapolitans like their pasta with so much resistance that the pasta strands can spring off the plate (in local dialect, fuienni)! Many other people like it much softer, but please don’t cook it for too long, as it become slightly indigestible, giving you a feeling of weight in your stomach.

Draining the pasta

Have ready a large colander in the sink, into which you drain the pasta. (Save a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water; this could be useful if your pasta sauce is too dry or too thick.) Never rinse the pasta, whether with cold or hot water, as this will wash away too much of the starch coating. If you are cooking long pasta, you could lift this from the pan using pasta tongs and then return to the pan after most of the water has been drained off.

Serving and eating

Heating the plates

Preheat both the serving dish, if using, and the individual plates. Italians like deep plates for pasta, such as you might use for soup.

Dressing the pasta with sauce

Always have your pasta sauce prepared by the time the pasta is cooked. This must be speedy, as pasta pieces will stick together if not dressed quickly. There are several ways of dressing the pasta with sauce. You could return the drained pasta to its saucepan, or place in a preheated bowl, to keep it warm. You could add a little olive oil or butter before the sauce, and stir, but I normally use just a little of the cooking water. Add some of the sauce, and toss the pasta to coat each piece. Divide the pasta between heated bowls or plates, and top each portion with a little more of the sauce. Another, simpler, way is to put the drained pasta in the saucepan with the sauce, and mixing in the pan before serving out. But remember that the pasta mustn’t be swimming in sauce.

Dressing the pasta with cheese

If necessary, add freshly grated Parmesan, pecorino or Caciocavallo cheese. (Aged cheeses are usually better.) Put some on top of the pasta and sauce in the serving bowl, and have some in a separate bowl for extra helpings. But don’t use cheese with fish pasta dishes, these might benefit instead from the flavour of a little stream of extra virgin olive oil.

Eating the pasta

Serve the pasta hot, and if it is long, eat only with a fork: lift a few strings of pasta from the plate with your fork, make a little space on the side, pin the fork down and start to twirl as if using a screwdriver. (Collecting a few strings only avoids you winding up with too big a mouthful.) The worst offence against pasta-eating etiquette is cutting long pasta with a knife, in order to eat it with a spoon. Using a spoon as well as a fork comes a near second… you should only use a spoon when eating soups or soupy pasta dishes. Try also not to suck strings into your mouth: only babies are usually allowed to do this, although the great Sophia Loren, in her book on Italian cooking, expressed a liking for this method!

Moping up the plate

There should really never be any sauce left at the bottom of an emptied pasta plate. But there are some Italians who commit the ultimate pasta faux pas by cleaning their plates with a piece of bread. This tastes good, however, and is known as la scarpetta (little shoes).

Keep any leftovers

Never throw away any leftover plain pasta or sauced pasta. There will always be something you can do with it.

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