Thursday, January 31, 2008

Spaghetti: how to buy, how to cook, how to eat

Buying spaghetti: you may not know this, but in Italy, spaghetti is numbered because there are different sizes. The standard size is number 5.

  • Not all spaghetti is created equal. Buy only durum wheat spaghetti. All Italian spaghetti will be durum wheat, while much of American spaghetti will not be. Read your labels (you've heard that one before).

To make spaghetti al dente (literally, to the tooth, that is, with a bit of bite and not overcooked) you need durum wheat pasta.

Beware of "Italian" food products which advertise themselves (truthfully) as imported. But imported from Canada. Alas.

I buy De Cecco spaghetti. But you should experiment. Also remember that if you adopt one brand for one shape of pasta, it will not necessarily be the best choice for other shapes. I have not found that De Cecco is the best for short pasta.

Boil spaghetti in plenty of water. The water must be at a rolling boil, which is easier to achieve and maintain with a gas flame. In twenty years in Italy, I can't remember ever seeing an electric burner.

I salt the water, unless the sauce itself will already be salty enough.

Do not break the spaghetti to make it fit in the pot. Press it down quickly to fit. Stir occasionaly to prevent sticking at bottom. Make sure that the tips do not stick out during cooking at any time.

You cannot rely on the box's cooking time instructions. It is only a guideline. Fish out a strand, taste. Cook another minute or so according to your "test." Experience will guide you over time. But I still do this every time, after decades.

Not all sauces go with all pasta shapes. Fish and the more liquid sauces typically go with long forms such as spaghetti. Meat and chunkier sauces might go better with short pasta.

Drain quickly. Drain less if you need more fluidity to your pasta. Do not rinse your spaghetti.

You must (as my Italian mother told me many times) mix the spaghetti well to coat. The sauce is not meant to sit there on top.

If you are cooking spaghetti for one to three, you may well throw the drained pasta quickly into the pan of sauce. Stir rapidly and thoroughly, and serve.

Do not serve in a flat plate. A bowl of some sort will conserve heat, which is essential.

Do not use spoons or knives in eating spaghetti. Practice makes perfect. The most important tip is to take a small number of strands and twirl them rapidly. Twirl them against the bottom or the side of the bowl to help yourself. Above all, look disinvolto (poised, nonchalant), like the baby in the photo. People will think you're a pro.

Finally: do not always use Parmesan cheese on spaghetti. Italians do not use cheese on fish sauces. If you use grated cheese, grate it fresh at the table.