towards a theory of pasta

I don’t know if anyone has done any serious research into the dilation of time experienced while waiting for pasta to boil; I find it likely that no-one ever will. Whether there is something in the quality of 00 flour which, on contact with briskly boiling water, causes an effect not unlike that of certain hallucinogenic drugs whereby the nine minutes it takes for dried fusilli to cook seems to take twice or three times that long or whether, as seems more likely, I am naturally impatient and become more so when hungry, will probably never be known. In any case, I often think that the vast majority of dressings for pasta were devised simply to give you something to do while you wait for the main event, which is after all better off adorned as little as possible. The best sauces, to my mind, are the ones whose main liquid component is the pasta cooking water, seasoned with pecorino and pepper, or garlic and chilli, or brought together by a friendly egg. There is something beautiful in just the words ‘buttered noodles’, let alone their shining yellow glory, and it is a shame you have to mess around making a coq au vin or a stroganoff if you want to eat them in a socially acceptable fashion. (As a side note, while I find the habit that self-appointed intellectuals have of disparaging the American dialect of English tedious in the extreme, the use of ‘noodles’ to mean any shape of pasta always throws me. The word so clearly and naturally means wiggly lengths.) Although many-ingrediented and long-cooked ragus of course have their place the best ones are those braised down into a homogenous mass to become a seasoning for the pasta and its thickening water – the confusingly named Neapolitan dish Ragu Genovese, a sticky mush of aubergine, or a proper spag bol – and they do, having been made preferably a day in advance, leave you with the problem we began with, leaving you nothing to do while your cavatelli cooks except sink a glass of something fizzy, chat to your guests, or articulate a theory of pasta.

Soup Of The Evening

When you awake, perhaps a little hungover but in any case tired from a long week of work, to a quiet white blanket across roof and pavement and more coming down fast, the inevitable desire for pies, braises, broths and stews has to battle with the mundane reality of kicking through the slush to the shops. For some reason, while being out in the snow with no purpose is a great delight, running errands in it a soggy chore.

Some chefs and food writers have, I’m sure, a freezer full of old bones, scraggy pieces of meat and the like, stored for just this reason; many must have tupperware full of daubes and casseroles only needing a long defrost. As my freezer contains only two wholemeal flatbreads, badly freezer-burned, my dreams of soup remained just that. I could, come to think of it, have made a little broth of dried mushrooms and potatoes, but to tell the truth I couldn’t really be bothered; far easier to pound garlic, anchovies, capers and walnuts, loosen the mixture with some of the water from just-cooked pasta, toss together and eat with a glass of unambitious wine.

Forever fall’n

I have been waiting some time for it to really become autumn, but the seasons don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to be doing these days. First it was too hot, then it was too grey; the week so far has been dense and muggy. We’ve had a few mizzling wet days, but today is the first, I think, that can really be described as crisp, the adjective properly associated with autumn. The trees opposite my house are a bright yellow, and I am contemplating buying more sweaters.

Every cook I know loves autumn. It is a time to get back in the kitchen, after the lazy months of bread and salads, to break the richly muted skins of roots and gourds and stew and braise and roast them. It is a time, most importantly, of lacerating nostalgia – both for the just-dead summer and for Octobers long gone – which is the very best mood in which to cook. It is strange what a couple of bay leaves can conjure out of the past. More fundamentally, it is a time for eating soup.

Making the staff meal at work the other day, I sweated some sweet onion and celery in olive oil, stirred in a little pumpkin puree and some dried chilli, then added a parmesan rind and a quantity of ham hock broth, which puttered away thickly and happily. Half an hour before we ate I added some fregola and the shredded outer leaves of hispi cabbages; fifteen minutes later I took it off the heat and added some croutons, grated cheese, chopped parsley, and quite a lot of black pepper. Soups like this need a little rest.

Now, while this took me minutes to put together, a full recipe for it would seem a daunting prospect; it relies on leftovers and byproducts, the kind common in a commercial kitchen or perhaps in some idealised farmhouse, but less so at home. More achievably, perhaps, the other night I cooked some yellow lentils in a spiced tomato passata (mine was fermented, yours needn’t be) and, separately, some chubby tubes of pasta, putting the two together with some grated kashkaval cheese and a whole pack of spindly rocket, leaving the lot covered for five minutes like a calm risotto before stirring vigorously together so the rocket wilted into a hot and bitter vegetable; I’m not sure if the result was a soup or a pasta dish, but it warmed me right through to the edges.

Death / Roe

I often wonder how much healthier, both physically and mentally, we would be as a country if the New Year started not in January, but in March, or perhaps May, and if resolutions therefore had to be kept not in the long death of winter but instead against a background of burgeoning spring as it made its way towards the green early summer. How anyone expects to keep, say, to a salad-based diet, or to lay off the booze – even a glass of good red wine of a long evening! – when the days are still short, when the temperature frequently drops below zero, when there is slush in every gutter and no leaves to be seen, except for endless, endless kale, I do not understand.

Having said that, I do enjoy a crisp winter’s day, and if I might wait until the wind is a little less vicious and the roads are not glinting with ice to get back on my bicycle, then I am willing to spend one eating food which is similarly crisp and cold, January being the time to eat raw celeriac with mustard and creme fraiche, or shredded radicchios and chicory enlivened with neat fillets of blood orange, or brassicas charred briefly over a hot flame, and then left to macerate in apple vinegar and miso. So-called clean eating is, of course, a nonsense, but there is a certain cleanliness of flavour, a sidestep away from the butter and spice which characterises a British Christmas, that is desirable at this time of year, especially if it marches in tandem with an enormous bowl of pasta or a good pot of ragu – one of those ones so slow-cooked that the vegetables have completely dissolved and all you have left is a kind of jam made from meat, so it has to be spread on toast or indeed stirred through that enormous bowl of pasta, rather than served, say, with mashed potato.

Raw celeriac, especially when cut into neat matchsticks and slightly overdressed with that creme fraiche and mustard, demands to be eaten with hot-smoked fish of some kind; in an ideal world, this would be eel, for which I have a great weakness, especially when hot-smoked and cut across the bone into little steaks and then grilled to loosen the rich buttery oils. Eels, however, with their deeply mysterious lives lived between the muddy Thames and the wide Sargasso Sea, are one of the least sustainable of fishes, as well as being, when smoked, quite enormously expensive, so you might have to make do with smoked mackerel; hardly making do, smoked mackerel being extremely delicious, especially if you buy the whole burnished fish wrapped neatly in brown paper, instead of sweaty vac-packed fillets. I don’t have any plans to smoke mackerel this year, as I’m keeping it all for canning, but I did get, the other day, two fat sacs of cod’s roe, one of which I smoked to be made into tarama salata and the other of which I will dry brick-hard and grate or shave over slick ribbons of pasta, a taste of distant seas in the landlocked depths of winter.

Starch and Lard

  

  I think pasta was the first thing I really learned to cook properly, graduating from Super Noodles to the real stuff via those powdered-cheesy-sauce-in-a-packet ones (c’mon, they’re delicious) and taking notes along the way. (Disregarding the packet instructions, I would quickly reduce my barbecue beef sauce to a rich coating consistency, or mess around with butter:milk ratios – a foodie even then). I ate a LOT of pasta, perfecting the basics – the deep boil of the water, the cupped palmful of salt needed, the slick of oil or butter at the end – and still really like it for itself, rather than just a vehicle for sauce. A bowl of spaghetti with plenty of black pepper and cheese is one of my favourite meals.

Although I’m less inclined to eat huge expanses of starch these days, pasta is still my go-to quick dinner, my need-to-line-the-stomach-but-there’s-nothing-in-the-house fix, and as such I have a small but honed repertoire of very quick dressings for it. (I think pasta sauces should be either ridiculously long-winded – ragus of rabbit / ox cheek – or ready in the time it takes the pasta to cook. Anything in the middle isn’t really worth messing around with). The classic here is spaghetti with garlic and chilli, but I’m not going to sit here and give you a recipe for that; I’m also a big fan of the Sicilian sautéed brassica school. This, though, is my current favourite, born of the few oddities I had in an otherwise empty kitchen. There’s nothing worse than food writers talking about their ‘store cupboard’ dishes, assuming you have salted anchovies and the rinds of fine cheeses knocking about the place, so I won’t call it that. It was, though.

SPAGHETTI, PIG FAT, PICKLED GARLIC & BREADCRUMBS

For one

100g spaghetti

75g salted pork fat, diced (lardo or salo, depending on where you’re shopping)

2 cloves pickled garlic, sliced

a pinch of chilli flakes

a splash of balsamic vinegar

a handful of dried breadcrumbs (pangrattato, if you’re buying them)

salt and pepper

I assume you know the pasta drill; a deep pan of water, a good teaspoon of salt, a proper rolling boil. If I’m cooking spaghetti for one and therefore not in a huge pan, I like to break it in half before adding it to the water. You might feel that defeats the point of spaghetti, though.

When that’s on, put the pork fat in a cold frying pan and heat gently. When some of it has rendered out, add the garlic and chilli, and increase the heat, tossing it around to get colour on both the garlic and fat. When they’re nicely sautéed, add a splash of vinegar and let it reduce slightly. Put aside til the pasta’s done.

When it is, drain it, keeping a bit of the cooking water, and tip back into the pan with the fat and bits, and a spoonful of the reserved water. Give a good stir, and add the breadcrumbs, a load of pepper, and some salt if it needs it. Some parsley might be appropriate here too, but I didn’t have any.

Spaghetti con Ricci

Palermo is a cartographer’s nightmare, a psychogeographer’s dream, a tightly wound warren of streets and alleys overlain on centuries and centuries of growth, where modern concrete rubs up against a bombed-out Norman church, where Roman utility sits next to swirling Arabesques, the whole thing surrounded, threatened by the savage outcrops of the wild Sicilian hills. Two hulking cartographic engines sit in the ethnographic museum on Palermo’s outskirts, monuments to the tremendous effort it must have taken to map that intricate city. This physical complexity, itself a reflection of the long histories of occupation and control which Sicily has undergone, is reflected in the culture of the island, particularly, as you might expect in Italy, in its food.

I don’t, it should be said, know a huge amount about Italian food – my main impression of it before visiting Palermo was of a fierce and ossified provinciality, of a formidable tradition of dishes, refined over decades or centuries, that would admit little in the way of regional or cultural variation. This was largely confirmed in Palermo. Restaurant after restaurant served variations on a theme, the same few sauces skipping around between the same few pastas, a seemingly endless, albeit delicious, procession of caponata. Look closely into these dishes, though, and you can see the way they have gradually assimilated their influences, the lessons they have learnt from their invaders.

The Greeks are there in their mania for fish, as simple and fresh as possible, and in their bracing mountain herbs; the universal Roman seasoning of garum, fermented fish sauce, has found its expression in the universality of the anchovy, often used, it seemed to me, as a substitute for salt, while the influence of the Arabs is everywhere. The dried fruit and nuts with fish, the meat ragu incongruously stuffed into sweet biscuits, the granita’s echo of sharbat, the love of sugar and pastry and bizarre contortions of both; even pasta, I believe (an argument I am not getting into here) is a legacy of the Arab occupation. 

Then again, there were things which seemed wholly of Sicily, chiefly the street food, which seemed the product of a poor and inventive population – boiled spleen transformed into something resembling doner meat, stuffed into a bun with two kinds of cheese, chickpea flour cooked like polenta and served in little deep-fried triangles, lengths of sheep intestine threaded onto skewers and grilled over scorching heat – I’m sure these, too, had their origins and their influences, but like the rest, they had been assimilated into the odd fusion, the fascinating tapestry, of Sicilian cuisine.

Having said all that, the finest thing I ate in Palermo was also one of the simplest, the least expressive of any outside culture or influence beyond the sea which the city crouches round – spaghetti with sea urchin, at the Trattoria Piccolo Napoli. Sea urchin is becoming something of a fashionable ingredient – the various St. John’s have been serving it for a while now, and even old Hugh F-W was getting in on the act on his Scandinavian show – which I had never tried, so it was a bit of a must-eat for me, even though I’m not much of a fish lover. I had heard it variously described as ‘delicate’ (which often seems to mean tasteless) and tasting ‘of the sea’ (which usually means salty), so my expectations weren’t particularly high, especially when my spaghetti arrived, plain except for a little parsley and what looked like bloody mucus.

Well, it was absolutely, outrageously, delicious. Forked through the pasta, the urchin dissolved and thickened into a rich sauce, perfectly coating the spaghetti, which tasted, delicately but powerfully, of the sea. It was elusive, only just on the tip of your tongue, and yet the aftertaste lingered and lingered, tasting the way the seaside smelt when you were young and everything was fresh and clean. The dish as a whole was an absolutely perfect collision of skill and ingredient; the pasta was cooked to absolute al dente perfection – and there the chef’s interference stopped. Parsley and urchin were dumped upon it, and there you go. Easily one of the nicest dishes I have ever eaten, and one which seems to epitomise much of what is admirable about Italian cuisine – the absolute primacy of ingredient, the vicious simplicity of execution.

I’m not going to attempt to give a recipe for this – for one thing, I’ve never cooked it, and probably never will. I could try for the rest of my life to approximate that experience. If you’d like to, it should be pretty simple – scoop out a sea urchin, cook some pasta, chop some parsley, combine. Good luck.