Monday, March 15, 2010

Myths about pasta

Myth 1: Marco Polo invented pasta / bought it back from China. Not true, according to Oretta Zanini De Vita, who cites records indicating that Italian pasta was adapted from wheat and semolina dumplings introduced to Italy by the Arabs in the ninth century*. Way before Signore Polo.

Myth 2: Fresh is always better than dried pasta. It depends. I have a beautiful recipe for drunken pasta, which is dried spaghettini, cooked by reduction method in a bottle of red wine flavoured with garlic and thyme. As the dried pasta cooks, it absorbs the red wine, turning purple and acquiring a rich tannin flavour. Fresh pasta would fall apart. Dried orrechette with crumbled pork and fennel sausages and fresh peas and grated parmesan. Homemade fresh gnocchi? Brilliant. Fresh paparadelle with olive oil and goats curd? Lovely. Fresh lasagne sheets any day (although that is pure personal preference). It depends.

Myth 3: pasta makes you fat. Nonsense.*

Myths 4, 5 and 6: Carbonara sauce has cream in it, marinara sauce has seafood in it, and pasta spaghetti alla puttenesca means ‘spaghetti in the manner of whores’. False, false and ok, kind of true.

Spaghetti carbonara, as eaten in Italy, is parmesan, pepper, egg yolks and guanciale (cured pig’s cheek). Was is named for the appearance of charcoal that pepper gives? From a black colour given by squid ink or soot? Because coal miners made it? In honour of the Carbonari, a Dan Brown-esque secret society? Who can say? Cream is a delicious American-Italian addition.

Apparently, marinara is Italian for mariner – and marinara describes your basic-est of basic sugo – tomatoes, garlic, onion. Italian seafarers bought tomatoes back from the new world, and the resulting sauce is hence named ‘sailor’s sauce’. And puttenesca was probably known to a few saucy sailors - its name is indeed derived from a derogatory Italian word for sex worker, puttana, which can also be used to describe un-valued or left-over things – like the tomatoes, black olives, anchovies and capers that make up the sauce. Plus quick for a working girl to throw together. I add chilli, for a bit of extra spice. Think of it as cheap and easy.

* Encyclopedia of Pasta, 2009, University of California Press

** Eating more energy than you expend makes you “fat”. And I put this in inverted commas because I think we make too much of “does this make me fat” and not enough of “am I healthy, happy, fulfilled, loved and excited by life”. A standard serve (about 150g) of dried plain pasta has about 225 calories. Which, with vegetables and fruit and protein and conscientious home-cooking and informed choices about food and fun and walking the dog, is part of a healthy life. Pasta does not make you fat.

Spaghetti al nero de seppia del Mare

AKA spaghetti pescatore AKA squid ink pasta with seafood sauce NOT AKA spaghetti marinara

For 2

300g good quality squid ink pasta (ie, spaghetti al nero de seppia)
Basic sauce from the chilli mussels recipe (ie, onion, fennel, tomatoes, capsicum, fennel seed chillies, white wine).
500 g mussels
200 g firm fleshed white fish fillets, cut into bite sized chunks
1 calamari hood, cleaned and cut into rings
Olive oil
Sea salt

Cook the pasta sauce (onions, garlic and fennel first until soft, then tomatoes, chillies, fennel seeds until softening, then wine). Set aside until ready to eat.

In a large pot, boil lots of water (I use a 5 litre pot), add a generous about of salt (about 1 tbsp) and bring to the boil. Add the pasta, bring back to the boil, stir and cook for about 10 minutes (most pasta packages indicate cooking times – just keep an eye on it, and take out a strand to check – I check by taking a bite). When cooked, strain and return to the pot and douse with olive oil – this stops it from sticking together, and buys you time to concentrate on the seafood.

Bring the sauce to a simmer. Add the mussels and cover. As the first ones start to peek open, throw in the fish. As the fish start to turn white at the edges, thrown in the calamari rings, cover and turn off the heat. (You could add scallops, prawns, clams or any seafood you like really – just note the difference cooking times and be careful to add in relative order, so that everything is nicely cooked, but not over cooked).

Place a spiral of black pasta into a shallow bowl, and top with spoonfuls of sauce and seafood. Scatter with torn basil leaves and fresh cracked pepper.

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