Sunday, 9 January 2011

Spaghetti dinners

When I was a child all pasta was called spaghetti or macaroni. The word pasta was a chic import in the newly food conscious 70s, just prior to discovering pesto sauce in the 80s. Spaghetti itself remains my favourite shape and paired with a garlicky sugo al Napoletano tomato sauce, is my death row meal, my desert island dish, my first culinary impulse after any illness, appetite regained, the food I long for in foreign climes and the first dinner I make on returning.
A Neopolitan tomato sauce with olive oil, onions, bay leaf, garlic and basil is from the poorer south of Italy, where meat is scarcer than in the north, rather than the meat based Bolognese from Bologna.
Spaghetti only goes with certain sauces, anything else is heresy. The best spaghetti is bronze die, when it is 'extruded' through a shaped template made of bronze which gives an irregular and rough surface texture, all the better to hold the sauce.  Bronze die pasta hasn't really taken off in Britain, although Jamie Oliver produced a range. It seems that people are not yet willing to pay that little bit extra for a quality pasta.
Most of the time I buy De Cecco or Barilla, as this is widely available in supermarkets. Italian chef Francesco Mazzei of L'Anima favours Cocco or Martelli.
Cooking time is another key issue: the French for instance, for all their culinary talent, invariably overcook pasta. American Barilla pasta has longer cooking times cited on the package than Italian Barilla. I've heard that southern Italians like their pasta even more al dente than northerners.
It's difficult to cook spaghetti well in bulk. Bill Buford's brilliant book Heat explains, in recounting his 'stage' at Mario Batali's in New York, how restaurants cook pasta, and the importance of the pasta water. "In all these dishes was an ingredient you can't get at home: the restaurant's pasta water."
There are three stages that the boiling water in the pasta pot goes through during service: 1) clear and very salty "Like the sea" 2) cloudy, becoming"an increasingly thick vehicle for soluble starch. the time the water reached this condition it behaved like a sauce thickener, binding the elements and, in effect flavouring the pasta with the flavour of itself...." and finally 3) muddy. The reader is advised never to order pasta after ten pm.
Buford is amazed that at home, we drain all that good pasta water away in a colander, rather than "using a pair of tongs and pulling the spaghetti straight out of the pot".
Over the years a series of spaghetti myths has developed but...

  • don't put oil in the water,
  • don't break spaghetti
  • don't cut it
  • don't throw it against the wall to see if it's cooked
  • don't rinse it for god's sake, the starch helps the sauce adhere
  • even dried pasta should be as fresh as possible
  • only use freshly grated Parmesan
  • only use freshly ground pepper
  • don't use Parmesan with fishy sauces
  • pasta cools quickly so serve it on warmed plates
  • use lots of water to boil it in
  • salt the cooking water adequately, this means you need to salt the sauce less
  • do not add sugar to your tomato sauce
I'm having a spaghetti dinner this Friday coming on the 14th of January, a three course meal for £25 if you want to book, go here. 

The Menu:

Fennel and blood orange salad

Spaghetti Puttanesca

Galette des rois

3 cheeses and biscuits £5 extra


  1. Hip hip horay, for bronze-extruded spaghetti! Pasta al pomodoro would be my desert island food too!

  2. I also read somewhere that La Molisana make good pasta too? I was pleasantly surprised to find that an Asian family supermarket sitting right on the doorstep of Bradford's riot stocks only this range.

  3. You are in good company. Anna del Conte named pasta with tomato sauce as her desert island dish on Desert Island discs the other day.

  4. uh oh...I disagree with some of those rules...I love a little sugar in my tomato sauce -esp my bolognaise...and I like parmesan on my fish pasta (I know I'm a cretin)and I often break the spaghetti to make eating more manageable... oh dear...but aren't rules made to be broken? And these breaks work for me...! xxx

  5. When I lived in London after leaving university I used to trawl the Italian delis and shops in Soho - it was where I say fresh pasta for the first time- where I came from the only place you found pasta was in a tin...hard to imagine now..

  6. I didn't hear Anna Del Conte's desert islands disc...will try to catch it on listenagain...

    Thanks for your comments...

  7. I agree with all of the rules, except that, like the Curious Cat, I cannot resist putting parmesan on a fishy sauce (I also use creme fraiche with passata, another no no). As for sugar, I don't touch it, but I find that balsamic vinegar (cheapskate a la Modena from Carrefours) performs a very similar function.


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