How to cook pasta like an Italian
Pasta is so much a part of our diets that it’s easy to take it for granted and never question whether the way you cook it could be improved. But a couple of days in Tuscany this week have reminded me that the Italians treat it in a very different way from us. And one that makes it easier and quicker to make.
First of all for most Tuscans - and other Italians come to that - pasta is not a meal in itself but a filler course between the starter (antipasto) and the main course. That means the average helping is much smaller (about 75g dry weight, I’d say) and the amount of sauce used much less. A typical pasta sauce would have just two ingredients, oil and tomatoes with cheese sprinkled on at the end. Sound dull? Not at all if the ingredients are good.
If you’re saving on other ingredients you can afford to splash out on better basics like an Italian-made pasta, ripe fresh tomatoes (available nowadays even at this time of year), extra virgin olive oil and freshly grated parmesan or pecorino (which is what the Tuscans would use). I found some small plum tomatoes reduced by 75% in our local Co-op which formed the basis of the dish.
Penne al pomodoro
200g dried penne
3 tbsp olive oil + extra for drizzling
225g cherry or baby plum tomatoes
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Grated pecorino, parmesan or grana padano to serve
Bring a kettle of water to the boil, pour into a large pan, bring back to the boil and add salt. Tip in the pasta, stir, bring back to the boil and cook for the amount of time recommended on the packet.
In the meantime heat 3 tbsp of the oil in a frying pan and add the tomatoes. Cook over a medium heat until the skins start to split then break down the tomatoes with a large fork or wooden spoon (see photo right). Season with salt, pepper and a small pinch of sugar (our tomatoes are not as sweet as Italian ones), part-cover the pan and leave simmering gently while the pasta finishes cooking. Before you drain the pasta spoon off 3 tablespoons of the cooking water and add it to the tomatoes. Drain the pasta, tip it into the tomato sauce and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in warm bowls with extra oil trickled on top and a sprinkling of grated pecorino or parmesan.
Of course you can add other ingredients if you fancy - some crushed garlic along with the olive oil when you fry the tomatoes or some fresh basil at the end but the point is that the italians often don't and you needn't.