Home/ Mint-lounge / Indulge/  A Primer On Preparing Pasta

Pasta has been popular in India for long enough that people often make it at home, and Italian restaurants have started becoming the new ‘‘Chinese" in how common they are. Home cooks have been misled by some cookbooks that teach incorrect methods of cooking pasta, so a gentle primer on cooking pasta seemed like a good idea.

The questions I get most often about pasta are: ‘‘How do I know when it’s cooked?", ‘‘How much pasta should I use for X people?", ‘‘Should I put salt/oil in the water?" and ‘‘Do you have a good recipe for a pasta sauce?" By the end of this column, I will have answered all of those, while shattering some myths about the cooking process.

Cooking pasta is simple. All you need is a large pot, water, salt, and dried pasta. How much pasta? If you want to eat like an Italian, no more than about 80g of dried pasta per person, but you can use up to 100g if you want to stay on the safe side. A box of imported pasta is usually about 1lb (454g) and can feed four-six people.

A common mistake is to not use enough water (often because the pot is not large enough). Pasta needs to have plenty of water to swim around in. This prevents sticking, and also avoids a steep drop in water temperature when pasta is dropped into boiling water. A rule of thumb is to use 10 times the pasta weight in water. Since 1 litre of water weighs 1kg, estimating the volume to use is simple. Bring the water to a rolling boil and add salt, approximately 1-1½ teaspoons per 100g of dried pasta. It should ‘‘taste like the sea". This helps season the pasta as it cooks and brings out flavour. Now check the pasta packet for suggested cooking time. Pasta cooking time can vary a lot depending on shape and size, and trusting the manufacturer is more reliable than guessing.

Add the pasta to the boiling water. Stir it around every minute or so with a wooden spoon for the first couple of minutes to prevent sticking. Then keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until you’re two minutes short of the recommended cooking time on the packet. The worst thing you can do to pasta is overcook it, and nobody wants mushy pasta. The famous ‘‘al dente" standard is to have it cooked but still slightly firm to the tooth. Pick up a piece from the boiling water and break it into half. If it’s undercooked, the outer layer will look dark yellow and the core will still be pale yellow. Keep cooking, repeating this exercise every 30 seconds or so till the pasta is even-coloured throughout. At this point, immediately turn off the heat and drain the pasta through a colander. It must now be tossed within a couple of minutes in a sauce and not allowed to sit and get cold.

You might have noticed that I did not ask you to add any oil to the cooking water as some cookbooks and even celebrity TV chefs suggest. Adding oil is a terrible idea. First, oil doesn’t mix with water; it floats on the surface. So it’s not doing anything for your submerged pasta. Second, when you drain the pasta, the oil coats the pasta surface. No, this is not a desirable outcome. A good pasta dish only tastes great when the sauce clings to the pasta. Oily pasta prevents this from happening, making the sauce slide off, and the dish will taste flat. And no, do not rinse the hot pasta in cold water. You will remove the starch released by the pasta while cooking that helps it adhere to sauces. (Unless you’re making pasta salad, but if you want to abuse pasta like that, I can’t save you.)

Right, so now that I’ve busted two common myths about cooking pasta, here is a basic tomato-basil sauce to accompany your pasta (hey, this is a column, not a recipe book). For one 450g packet of pasta, you’ll need:

Tomatoes: 1kg

Minced onion: 50g

Minced garlic: 25g (that’s about five-six large cloves usually)

Fresh fragrant basil: A nice big handful

Salt: About 2 teaspoons

Freshly ground black pepper: 1 teaspoon

Extra virgin olive oil: 5 tablespoons

First, you’ll need to skin and puree the tomatoes. Some chefs like to remove the seeds before this, but I like keeping them because the jelly part with the seeds has actually got a more-concentrated tomato flavour. To skin tomatoes, cut a shallow ‘‘X" pattern into their bottoms. Then blanch them in boiling water for 30-60 seconds, drain, and dunk them into cold water. The X part will now have a skin flap you can use to tear off the skin. Coarsely chop the tomatoes, purée them, and pass through a sieve to get rid of any seeds and large bits.

Now heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a saucepan over medium heat, add onion and garlic, cook until onion is translucent (not the ‘‘brown" that is often called for in Indian cooking), and then add the puréed tomatoes. Add the pepper and half the salt (reserving the other half to adjust at the end of cooking) and cook for about 20-25 minutes uncovered till your sauce has reduced. Check for seasoning and add salt as required. It should be slightly saltier than ‘‘to taste". Now throw in the hot pasta (spaghetti is a good choice), add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and hand-torn basil leaves, and toss well to coat for about 30 seconds. Your pasta is ready to serve.

With this basic tomato sauce, you can try variations. A spicier Arrabiata sauce can be made by adding two finely sliced red chillies to this recipe. A more flavourful, robust sauce can be made by adding 25g each of minced carrots and celery. Or add some fried eggplant strips to an Arrabiata sauce and replace basil with some chopped parsley. Or add chopped bacon to the onion and cook the sauce, then replace the basil with some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. There are lots of options, and that’s just with a basic tomato sauce.

Just remember that a pasta sauce is not an Indian curry and should not be killed with too much spices or herbs (you people who unload half a bottle of chilli flakes and dried oregano at restaurants, I’m looking at you!). Pasta should not be buried in sauce either for it would upset the balance of flavours and textures. But other than that, experiment and have fun.

Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer.

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Updated: 22 Feb 2013, 12:21 AM IST
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