Posted on in On Our Radar by Eugene Ruffolo

In Pursuit of the Perfect Plate


Pasta. It’s the classic dish that immediately comes to mind when one thinks about Italian food. And with good reason. In most regions, from central Italy and all the way down through Sicily, pasta is the primo piatto—the first course eaten every day at the midday pranzo. The beauty of pasta is that it seems virtually infinite in its shapes and in the various sauces with which it is served. Pasta can be dried or freshly made at home—long, short, or filled with meats, herbs, cheeses, or vegetables. Boiled or baked. In short, pasta is an art form unto itself.

More beautiful still is its simplicity. It doesn’t take a lot of skill or cooking knowledge to make a wonderful plate of pasta, if one understands the few fundamental rules involved in its preparation.

Shape. I’ve heard people unfamiliar with Italian cooking ask the question: “Why are there so many pasta shapes—aren’t they all the same?” Nothing could be further from the truth! Pasta should be seen as a vehicle for the sauce that accompanies it—and therein lies the beauty of its design. When choosing the appropriate pasta to accompany a particular sauce, think of how the shape will serve to offer up the sauce. For example, when making Pasta Piselli (pasta and peas), a small shell (conchiglie) works perfectly. The peas will nest brilliantly inside the shell! Spaghetti would not be as good a choice. Let’s look at rigatoni. The name is derived from the fact that the pasta is rigate, which refers to the grooves that are etched into the pasta. Those grooves catch the sauce, which makes rigatoni a favorite pasta shape for eating various tomato-based sauces and ragouts.

Salt. Salt is a critical ingredient in all cooking, and pasta is no exception. In a world in creasingly concerned with health and wellbeing, salt is often villainized. But one of the biggest mistakes people make when cooking pasta is to under-salt. Wait until the water is at a rapid boil before adding salt and then salt before adding the pasta to the water. I suggest testing the water for salt throughout the cooking process, leaving several minutes of leeway for adjustments. The correct amount of salt must be present while the pasta is cooking, so it will inform the pasta as it cooks. Salting your pasta after the fact is not an option, so you need to be vigilant and get it right. Try not to be intimidated by the seemingly significant amount of salt necessary to properly flavor pasta. Much of it is going down the drain, so use your tongue and not your eyes to regulate.

The boil. Pasta must be cooked in rapidly boiling water. Allow the water to come to a full boil before adding your pasta to the pot, and do your best to keep the boil as lively as possible throughout. As soon as the pasta is added, the water will cease its full boil, so cover the pot partially until it returns to a vigorous boil. Stir immediately after the pasta is added to the pot, and several times throughout the cooking process, to keep the pasta from sticking to itself and to ensure even cooking.

Pot size. The size of the pot in which you cook your pasta is of seminal importance.

Beginning cooks often make the mistake of using a pot that is too small to adequately allow the pasta to cook. The main issue here

is starch. As pasta cooks, it releases starches,
which will later combine with the sauce, emulsifying and creating a wonderful texture. If the
pot size is inadequate, it can crowd the pasta
and inhibit the release of those critical starches. So make sure you use a pot that leaves sufficient room.

La cottura (cooking time). This is the last and perhaps the most critical of all elements to be considered when in pursuit of the perfectly cooked plate of pasta. Cottura is a difficult word to translate. Like many words in the Italian language, it can mean multiple things. On a box of pasta you may find something like “Cottura: 12 minutes.” In this context cottura refers to “cooking time.” But cottura can also be translated as the degree to which something is cooked. La cottura of the pasta means the cooked-ness of the pasta, if you will.

You probably know that pasta should be cooked “al dente,” which literally means “to the tooth.” This means the pasta should have a slight bite to it, that it should be firm and not at all mushy or starchy. Al dente is the gold standard when considering the cottura of the pasta. The exact degree to which pasta should remain al dente is slightly subjective and a matter of personal taste. But one thing is for sure—to overcook pasta is a cardinal sin.

When it comes to achieving al dente pasta, there are two things to consider: the length of cooking time (la cottura) and the quality of the pasta itself. There is an expression in Italian, tiene la cottura (“hold the cottura”), which refers to the ability of a pasta to reach a point at which it is perfectly al dente. An inferior pasta will go from undercooked to overcooked without ever reaching that sweet spot. When cooking the pasta, it is important to test it for salt and cottura a few minutes in advance of the suggested cooking time. Most pasta manufacturers now indicate the suggested cottura on the package, and I find they are surprisingly accurate! Follow the directions and begin testing the pasta two to three minutes before the suggested cooking time. You will be rewarded with a perfectly cooked plate!

Eugene Ruffolo is an acclaimed singer-songwriter and author of the forthcoming project Canto per Mangiare, which explores the connection between music and food.

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