A good rule for cooking pasta is to take a saucepan large enough for the amount you wish to cook, and then get a bigger one. The bigger the saucepan, the faster it will come back to the boil after the pasta is added. I like to season the water and then taste it before cooking. The salt should be quite apparent – not like the sea, but close to. Despite your impulses or bad habits, do not add oil to the water. At some point, people thought this would stop the pasta sticking together. It doesn’t, but it does coat the pasta when draining and stop sauce clinging to it. I bring the saucepan to a high boil, drop in the pasta, and stir vigorously every 30 seconds. If I’m cooking spaghetti, I like to use tongs, otherwise a large spoon or fork will work.
The most essential thing about cooking pasta is timing. My other rule with cooking pasta is to take the recommended cooking time and subtract two minutes. If the packet calls for 10 minutes, I will cook for eight. I like to have quite a wet sauce and by the time I have drained the pasta and tossed it through the sauce to finish, it has cooked for the extra time.
If I can choose between fresh and dry pasta, I always choose dry. It is easier to get a reliable al dente. The only pasta I will always use fresh is ravioli or tortellini. I was once scolded in the kitchen for putting a lid on a pot of pasta as it boiled. If it boils too aggressively, it can damage the pasta. There are few things worse than overcooked pasta. Overcooked lasagna is possibly okay, but only for its comfort. And maybe baked macaroni. Otherwise, overcooked pasta brings on a strong physical repulsion in me – partly brought on by the lack of care in letting pasta overcook, and partly for the despicable texture. It takes on water and loses its flavour, and there is nothing good about it.
I mostly eat pasta at home. It’s reliable and versatile, and a fine way to use up odds and ends from the pantry or the fridge. A small pasta such as strozzapreti can take an abundance of textures. I love a pasta of green vegetables: broccoli, spinach and zucchini, all chopped down and gently cooked in olive oil with a few capers, and some herbs to finish. Although parmesan is a go-to cheese with pasta, I like to use pecorino made from ewes’ milk. Another thing I like is a salted ricotta, which has a firm freshness to it.
Although I say I mostly eat pasta at home, there are few things better in Melbourne than the table at the back of Guy Grossi’s Cellar Bar and a bowl of spaghetti vongole or the bucatini all’amatriciana.
Strozzapreti with salsa di noci
– 130g walnuts
– ½ clove garlic
– 2 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
– pinch salt
– 140ml extra virgin olive oil
– 4 tbsp finely grated parmesan
– 10 sage leaves
– 500g strozzapreti (I usually use 100g of pasta per person)
– 2 tbsp grated pecorino
Bring a pot of water to the boil, add the walnuts and simmer for two minutes.
Drain the nuts and, using the tip of a small knife, peel off the loosened skin. It can be hard to get all the skin off a walnut, but if you get it about half peeled then your sauce will be much sweeter.
Using a mortar and pestle, pound half the nuts with the garlic, breadcrumbs, salt and oil.
Incorporate half the oil into the sauce before adding the second half, so that it doesn’t split.
Finely chop the remaining nuts and add to the sauce with the parmesan.
Fry the sage leaves in a little hot oil until they are crisp (about one minute). Drain on paper towel and set aside.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water.
Meanwhile, take a heavy-based pan, which is large enough to fit the cooked pasta, and gently fry the walnut sauce in a little oil until it smells toasty and nutty. Don’t take the cooking too far or the nuts will become bitter.
Drain the pasta and reserve one cup of the cooking water.
Tip the pasta into the sauce along with the reserved cooking water and simmer until the sauce has thickened and the pasta is coated. Stir through the pecorino and check the seasoning.
Top the pasta with fried sage leaves before serving.
Orecchiette, rapini, anchovies and chilli
– 1 bunch rapini
– 400g orecchiette
– 2 clove garlic, chopped
– 1 small dried red chilli, crumbled
– 3 tbsp olive oil
– 8 good-quality anchovies, chopped
– 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
– 2 tbsp finely grated parmesan
Trim the tough ends of the rapini then chop it finely.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and cook the orecchiette.
While the pasta is cooking, fry the garlic, dried chilli and olive oil together in a wide pan.
Add the rapini, along with one cup of the pasta cooking water, and simmer until the rapini is bright green and the water has evaporated.
Take the pan off the heat and stir through the anchovies.
When the pasta is cooked, scoop it out of the water and into the wide pan, along with a splash more cooking water, the extra virgin olive oil and the parmesan.
Stir together over a medium heat until the pasta is nicely coated in sauce.
Check the seasoning before serving.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "Pasta perfect, strozzapreti, orecchiette". Subscribe here.