Italy’s Aqua Cottura

pasta boil

A key ingredient common to all Italian pasta dishes is l’acqua di cottura, the residual water that was used to boil the pasta. Literally translated to mean “the water of cooking” or cooking water which they consider to be liquid gold. The water used to boil your pasta is makes your pasta dish more delicious and helps the sauce adhere to the pasta better while also improving the flavor and texture of the sauce. L’aqua cottura adds moisture and makes the pasta creamy without adding too much oil or grease.

The magic of pasta water is due to the starch the pasta releases as it cooks so its important to use a good quality artisan pasta. Use only as much water as you need to cover the pasta as it boils (typically 1 pound of pasta to 4 quarts of water at a rolling boil). As long as you give the pasta a few vigorous stirs during the first two minutes of cook time the noodles will not stick together. This is essential because it is at this moment when the pasta can clump together as the first layers start to soften and release starch. Time according to package instructions and when the pasta is done the starch content will be concentrated in a ghostly glaze in the pasta water.

Drain but retain a few tablespoons of the water to add to the pasta as you finish it with the sauce in a separate pan. The sauce will adhere to the noodles in a beautiful marriage of the two and you will have a flavorful pasta with a thick, creamy sauce.

The White Ghost of Pasta

pasta al denteAmericans just don’t get pasta. They cook it and eat it all wrong. They vilify its nutritional benefits. They overcook it, over sauce it, over eat it and in doing so miss out on one of the truly great foods of the world. This versatile, healthy, satisfying food is misused and abused and yet keeps coming back for more as an all time favorite international ingredient.

True Italian pasta made by traditional, low-temperature, artisanal methods from wheat grown to regional specifications is a very precise art that produces more than a slippery mound of noodles drowning in a sea of sauce. To achieve the level of perfection that pasta is capable of you must prepare, serve and eat it correctly.

Preparing Pasta

Preparing pasta required lots of water – salted water. A one-pound box of pasta, about six servings, needs to cook in at least five quarts of vigorously boiling, salted water. Cramming a beautifully made pasta into a small saucepan is a little like asking a Ferrari to race on a go-kart track. Basically an invitation for disaster. In this case the unfortunate consequences are likely to be a gummy, overcooked pasta.

Recommended cooking times on a package or box of artisan pasta will generally give you good results if you follow the directions on pot size and amount of water. Experienced pasta makers look for the “white ghost”. When you cut into a strand of cooked spaghetti, it will appear cooked through, except for a white ghost, a tiny spot of not-quite-rawness, at the center of the strand. This is what is generally referred to as pasta al dente. It’s pasta that is tender but still retains a pleasant, slightly chewy texture. Timing, testing, draining, saucing and serving immediately ensures that your pasta is done right.

When preparing pasta reserve about 1 cup of pasta cooking water before draining. Drain loosely to keep the pasta moist. Never rinse the pasta, unless you’re using the pasta later and want to keep it from sticking. Add reserved pasta water slowly, a tablespoon at a time, to your saucepan with hot pasta and sauce. Combining the pasta and sauce in the pot not on the plate ensures a evenly sauced pasta with a consistent temperature and flavor .

Serving Pasta

In Italy pasta is eaten alone. It is considered to be a primo piatto, the first course followed by everything else. It is not a side dish nor does it have a side dish with it. Pairing your pasta with the right sauce is critical. Generally, larger pasta shapes work better with thick, robust sauces while skinny shapes, like vermicelli, suit light, seafood or cream sauces. Long ribbons of pasta go well with rich meaty sauces; think Bolognese. Twists with smoother sauces like pesto.

Know when to add cheese and when to leave it off. There are certain pasta combinations Italians do not use cheese on like those made with fish or seafood. As far as serving pasta on a plate versus a bowl, traditionally pasta was served on a plate or a shallow bowl (piatto fondo) that offers a curved surface against which to press the tines of the fork when capturing a bite.

Cabbage Means Wintertime in Italy

pasta and cabbageAlthough my Eastern European friends may disagree and my Irish friends may wonder if I’ve had one too many shots of espresso cabbage did originate in Italy. The crinkly Savoy cabbage (cavolo versa or Cavolo Milano) dates to the early 1500’s when it was a popular wintertime vegetable in the Savoy, a region of Italy that borders on Switzerland and France. It was often sauteed with garlic and olive oil, used in soups, served alone or with rice or pasta and is one of Italy’s favorite wintertime dishes.

A rustic, toothsome pasta pairs well with braised cabbage and other vegetables making it well worth trying. We recommend tagliatelle or La Bella Angiolina Olive Leaf Pasta from CosituttiMarketPlace for a vegetal flavor that pairs well with a St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef and Cabbage.

Savoy Cabbage and Pasta

1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt, plus more to taste
1/2 small head savoy cabbage, about 1/2 pound
1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 large cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
1/2 pound La Bella Angiolina Olive Leaf Pasta
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Chop cabbage into coarse shreds and sprinkle with salt. Allow to set for about an hour and drain squeezing to remove excess water. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the garlic. Heat until the garlic just barely starts to color, then remove from the heat. Discard the garlic. Add drained cabbage and slowly braise until caramelized and soft. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil with the salt and boil pasta. Combine drained pasta with the cabbage in skillet. Pour additional melted butter over (if needed) and toss until all the ingredients are well mixed. Season with coarsely ground pepper and taste for salt.

I Like it Rough

Italians perfected the art of making dried pasta in the16th century to create a food that could be stored for long periods and provide them with a meal in times of famine.  Little has changed over the years as artisan pasta makers continue to preserve the traditional ways of making pasta by using perforated bronze plates that mold the pasta and by allowing for slow drying times. Dried pasta has always been more typical of Southern Italy because it keeps well in the hotter, drier climate of the south. Fresh pasta (pasta fresca), often made with eggs and often served with creamy sauces, has been more characteristic of the North especially in the region of Emilia Romagna where you can sample some of Italy’s finest pasta. pasta boys

Short, thicker pastas like grooved penne or rigatoni are better with a full, meaty sauce while long, thinner pasta like spaghetti are best served with smoother sauces using oil. My friend Luigi, who has a doctorate in agronomy, gave me a short course on the different types of dried pasta by taking 5 popular pasta brands and rating them from best quality to least. A high quality pasta made with bronze dies gives a rough texture to the pasta.

The rougher the outside of the pasta the better the quality of the pasta.  Why? because sauces will adhere better giving a more uniform and consistently delicious flavor to each bite.

pasta and luigi

Pasta Takes the Bite Out of Winter

rabbit hunt

I think it’s time for a substantial winter meal. One that is plentiful, generous and abundant with the bold flavors of wild game and toothsome pasta. In Italy this would translate into a classic Tuscan peasant dish known as coniglio alla cacciatora, hunter’s rabbit stew. Traditionally served with long fat strands of hand-rolled pici or broad pappardelle pasta this dish was also made with the meat of a hare (pappardelle sulla lepre).

Hare and rabbit are both readily available in Italy. Italians find it tasty, lean, inexpensive and perfect for cooking alla cacciatora, the long, slow stewing method with a sauciness and fall-off-the-bone flavor.  A substantial primo piatto this dish needs little to accompany it to make a hearty meal other than a full-bodied red wine and some briny local olives.  In Italy the pasta is placed on top (sulla) of the cacciatora then gently mixed ever so slightly creating a subtle mingling of flavors.

If you can, use wild rabbit or hare for a more traditional dish with an earthy, richer flavor than farmed rabbit which is more delicate. In Italy, wild game dishes made with rabbit, hare, cinghiale (wild boar) or duck (anatra) are traditionally served with a thick rolled or broad pasta to absorb the flavor of the stewed meat. In Umbria stringozzi pasta is typical and very similar to Tuscan pici.  Both are types of “peasant” pasta that resemble fat spaghetti. All are thick pasta that go well with rich robust hunter-style sauces that take the bite out of winter.

Coniglio alla cacciatoraHunter’s rabbit stew

Serves 4-6

  • 7 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • Flour for dusting 1 rabbit
  • 1 rabbit, chopped into large pieces
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 stalk of celery chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 2 small bay leaves
  • sprig or 2 or parsley
  • 1 cup of red or white wine
  • 2 ounces of tomato paste dissolved in 1 cup of water
  • meat broth or water
  • coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Season the rabbit with salt and pepper. Dust the pieces of rabbit with flour and sear over medium high heat in a deep skillet suitable for a stew with 3 T extra virgin olive oil until golden brown. Remove the rabbit pieces and set aside. Deglaze the pan with the wine scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. Allow the wine to simmer and the alcohol to evaporate for a minute or two, then pour it over the browned rabbit and reserve.

In the same pan, add the remaining 3 T of extra virgin olive oil and sauté the soffritto (chopped onion, carrot and celery) over a gentle heat until the onion becomes transparent and soft.  Add the garlic and herbs and continue cooking a few minutes until fragrant.  Add the tomato paste to the pan and cook until the paste slightly darkens, about 5 minutes. Return the reserved rabbit and wine to the pan, adjust the heat to medium low and stir to mix about 10 minutes or until the rabbit begins to release its juices.

Simmer the rabbit partially covered, basting it occasionally, adding water or broth, if the sauce is getting too thick or dry. Cook until the meat is tender and begins to just fall off the bone (about 1 .5 hours).

Eat a Piece of History

According to Federico Fellini, life is a combination of magic and pasta and surely no pasta is more magical than croxetti. Thin sheets of pasta dough are pressed between engraved wooden moulds to create disc shaped coins with fanciful images. In medieval times the images were taken from the coat of arms of noble Ligurian families, hand stamped into the pasta and displayed for status and wealth at the dinner table. Other images included flowers, fruits and intricate designs that reflect the maker’s mark. Traditionally croxetti were stamped with the Christian cross (croxetti) giving this ancient craft cut pasta its name.

These pasta coins go well with lighter sauces made with fresh herbs, olive oil and butter or pesto to showcase the designs on the thin discs. One of my favorite ways to prepare croxetti is sugo bianco, in a white sauce made with butter, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts and Parmigiano cheese. I am suggesting ingredient sources for this recipe because the quality of ingredients does make a difference in the final product. Serve this recipe as Italians would do, a first course (primi) a wonderful and unique beginning to an exceptional meal for your family or friends.

Croxetti con Sugo Bianco

1 package of  La Bella Angiolina  Croxetti Pasta

4 T unsalted butter

½ – 1 cup pignoli (pine nuts)

2 cloves of peeled and roughly chopped fresh garlic

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup whole milk

¼ cup grated fresh Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1 T chopped marjoram

Salt and pepper

Boil the pasta according to package directions. When draining pasta retain some of the boiled pasta water. In a blender combine pine nuts, garlic and oil until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Melt butter in a small saucepan with marjoram. Gradually add the melted butter to mixture in blender. Add some of the retained pasta water to loosen the sauce if necessary. Pour drained pasta on to serving platter and lightly dress with sauce.

Note: You may have more sauce than needed. Do not over sauce the pasta. Pasta should not be swimming in the sauce but each pasta coin lightly coated. Serves 4 persons as a primi course.

Italians Are What They Eat

You’ve heard the expression “you are what you eat”. This slightly overused mantra has made its way into the vocabulary of food from proselytizing nutritionists to the voice over introduction on one of the Food Network’s most popular shows.  The Italians were eating healthy, nutritious regional food long before the term “locavore”, sustainability and week- end farmer’s markets became chic. So it follows that Italians are very concerned about the ingredients they use and most Italians I know would be the first to say that great ingredients make great recipes.

                                                                                                

Here are 7 ingredients that no self-respecting Italian would be without.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Italians know that being extra virgin is better. For flavor, taste, aroma and health benefits extra virgin olive oil is absolutely better. It is the freshest oil you can buy, high in polyphenols and protective antioxidants beneficial to heart health. A wide variety of medical studies also document the benefits of extra virgin olive oil in controlling blood glucose levels and strengthening the immune system.

 Oregano and Rosemary – Oregano is a source of natural antioxidants and has as many antioxidants as 3 cups of fresh spinach and rosemary is known as an anti-inflammatory.  Both carry loads of flavor. Whether fresh or dried, rosemary’s sweet pungent piney scent and the herbal spiciness of oregano are the herbs of choice in Italian cooking.

 Tomatoes – Eaten fresh or made into a sauce, tomatoes are an essential ingredient in the Italian pantry. In the summer they are layered between slices of buffalo mozzarella, anointed with extra virgin olive oil and scented with fresh basil or used to make a panzanella, Tuscany’s simple yet sublime bread salad.  At all times tomatoes are the base for the Italian red sauce giving depth to hundreds of regional Italian recipes that have made Italian food recognized all over the world.   

Garlic – Garlic is the godfather of Italian cooking. Chop it, crush it, then, let it sit to release the aroma, enzymatic and cardio-protective benefits found in fresh garlic. Respect this ingredient; use it well and it will never fail to add just what you need to perfect your dish.  

Pasta – Confused about pasta, don’t be. The most flavorful pasta is artisan pasta, roughly textured to allow the sauce to better adhere giving a more uniform and consistently delicious flavor to each bite. Quality pasta ia a “good carbohydrate” made from semolina flour, which is ground from durum wheat with a low glycemic index (41).  Italians eat pasta as a small introductory course (primo piatto) to the meal rather than in Mount Vesuvius proportions typical of American style dining.

Grapes and Wine – The pivotal role of grapes and red wine in the maintenance of health is well documented.  In Italy wine is considered to be a natural resource, a companion to food, a link to the past, a tradition to be preserved and a respected ingredient in cooking.

Cheese – The soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses of Italy are not easily translated in the US. Americanized versions of Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan), Mozzarella and Ricotta are not the same as what you will find in Italy.  Regional cheese making in Italy is government regulated with strict guidelines for manufacturing with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status under European Union law. Cheese in Italy is eaten as an accompaniment to a meal and enjoyed as an artisan product. It is often eaten as a dessert course with fruit.