As a survey claims that pasta is the world's favourite food, we look at how the Italian staple's versatility made it a global favourite, and how to cook it perfectly.
A passion for pasta
From piquant puttanesca to comforting, carbohydrate-heavy macaroni and cheese, not forgetting the classic trio of spaghetti dishes (bolognese, carbonara and alle vongole), pasta has a place in all our hearts.
Indeed, if a survey released last week by the charity Oxfam can be believed, pasta is the world's favourite food. While it might have been expected to top the list in Italy (as it did), the survey also found pasta was a favourite in places as far afield as Brazil, South Africa and the Philippines. A survey carried out by the International Pasta Organisation in 2010 found that after Italy, Venezuela was the largest consumer of pasta, eating some 12kg per head, per year, followed closely by Tunisia (11.7kg).
So why did those surveyed choose pasta over not only native dishes, but other global favourites such as pizza, curry and rice? How, to put it simply, did pasta conquer the world? Well, much of the appeal surely lies in its accessibility and versatility: pasta is a chameleon ingredient with recipes to suit every mood and season. From the student staple that is tuna pasta bake (finished off with a scattering of grated cheddar when funds are high) to hearty, warming meat ragu or delicate swirls of sophisticated linguine, bare but for a slick of butter and a few slivers of black truffle, pasta really is the food of a thousand guises.
That the mediaeval explorer Marco Polo discovered noodles in China and introduced them to Italy is a tale told and contested in equal measure, with plenty of fervour on either side. While it is generally thought that the Chinese were the first to refine the art of noodle-making, records suggest that there was pasta in the Mediterranean some time before Marco Polo. Either way, it was the Italians who went on to make the idea of combining wheat flour and water their own, and by the 18th century pasta had become a popular street food in Naples and was eaten all over the country.
Despite popular opinion, when it comes to dried and fresh pasta, it's really not a case of one being superior to the other, rather that they are both suited to different purposes. As a general rule, dried types (made from just flour and water) retain their bite well and are suited to the more oily, tomato-based sauces of the north while fresh pasta, (which contains protein from the egg yolks), is more silky and is ideal for stuffing or serving with creamy or buttery sauces.
Of course, the way that you to choose to serve your pasta at home is all down to personal preference. It is, however, worth bearing in mind that different shapes suit different sauces. Now saying that is all very well, but when you're browsing the shelves at the supermarket or perusing the menu at the local Italian restaurant, the sheer number of different types of pasta can feel rather bewildering. Sure, we all know spaghetti, but what's the difference between that and spaghettini or even spaghettoni?
It is therefore worth noting that the suffix provides an indication of size: "oni" suggests large (as in conchiglioni - large shells or spaghettoni - thick spaghetti); "ette" or "etti" denote something small (as in spaghetti or cappelletti - small hats) and "ine"or "ini" suggest tiny (hence spaghettini ).
Slim, fine pasta (for example spaghetti, spaghettini, angel hair, linguine, linguettine) is best served with a smooth, quite thin sauce. This allows the sauce to coat the delicate strands, without overpowering the flavour of the pasta completely. Thicker ribbons of pasta (fettuccine, pappardelle, fettuce, perciatelli) can stand up to heavier, more substantial sauces, such as ragus or rich, creamy dressings. Shaped pasta (conchiglie, conchiglioni, orecchiette) or types with holes or ridges (fusilli, rigatoni, penne) work well when the sauce is chunky or if the there is a lot of it, as the pasta then holds the sauce.
There are huge numbers of different types of "filled" pasta, from the well known tortellini to the larger tortelloni; look out for sweet little agnolotti (small "slippers") and cappelletti (little hats), not forgetting ravioli and cannelloni. So-called "soup" pasta can add bulk to a simple meal: this type of pasta comes in various different shapes, but tends to be very small and cooks quickly, which is why it is often added to the broth at the end of the cooking time. Examples include: vermicelli, pannette (small quills), stelline (little stars), anellini (little rings) and conchigliette (little shells)
So, once you've selected the right pasta, how do you go about ensuring that you cook it perfectly? Here are my tips for success.
Much like rice, it's often difficult to gauge exactly how much pasta to cook, namely because the amount you need depends on so many different factors. With this is mind, it's worth considering: the time of day and course (are you serving lunch or dinner, starter or main); the accompanying sauce (is it made from just butter and parmesan or something altogether more substantial); the appetite of those who are eating (are they carb loaders or dodgers) and the type of pasta. As a loose rule, allowing 100-125g of pasta (uncooked weight) per person seems to work quite well.
It is really important to use a large pan containing plenty of salted, fast-boiling water. Pasta absorbs liquid and expands as it cooks, so you need room for the individual pieces to move about freely. If there's not enough water, then the pasta won't cook evenly and will clump together. In his excellent reference book, McGee on Food & Cooking (which explores, among many other things, the science behind cooking processes), Harold McGee advises that "pasta be cooked in 10 or more times its weight of vigorously boiling water (around 5 quarts or litres water per pound/500g). This allows for the pasta's absorption of 1.6-1.8 times its weight". In both On Food & Cooking and in the encyclopaedic foodie tome that is Larousse Gastonomique, cooks are advised to add a little oil to the water, to lubricate the pasta and prevent it from sticking together.
Salt is also important: it not only flavours the pasta but limits the release of starch gelatine, which, in turn, reduces stickiness. The Michelin-starred Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli once instructed me (very emphatically), that for every 100g of pasta, you need 1 litre of water and five grams of salt. There seems little reason to argue with that (or him). He also said that you should always save the water after draining the pasta, in case the sauce needs loosening; a spoonful or two can apparently turn an oily concoction into something lovely and glossy, while imparting flavour at the same time.
Most pasta benefits from being served al dente or "firm to the bite". What this means is that it should remain slightly underdone in the centre and offer a little resistance when chewed. Although the cooking times on the packet offer a good indication of how long this will take, for best results it's important to keep tasting as the minutes tick by.
Pasta loses its heat quickly. Take preventive measures by warming your serving bowls or plates in the oven beforehand. As soon as the pasta is cooked and drained, add it to the chosen sauce: this will help it to retain some of the heat and prevents the pieces from sticking. As McGee explains: "Stickiness after cooking is caused by surface starch that dries out and cools down after the noodles have been drained, and develops a gluey consistency". Even moistening the pasta with a little oil or cooking water will make a difference here.
Spaghetti with mixed seafood (Serves 4)
This classic dish is very quick and easy to prepare, but looks rather elegant.
400g spaghetti 2 tbsp olive oil 1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped -1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped 150g cherry tomatoes 350g mixed seafood (clams, mussels, prawns, squid) 75ml double cream salt and black pepper
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for the time stated on the packet. Place a deep frying pan over a medium-low heat, add the olive oil followed by the garlic, chilli and cherry tomatoes and cook for 3-4 minutes, until the garlic is soft but not coloured. Increase the heat, add the clams and mussels (if using) and give the pan a good shake. Pour over 200ml water and bring to the boil. Discard any shellfish that remain closed. Add the rest of the seafood followed by the cream, season to taste and leave to simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the drained spaghetti to the pan and stir well to combine. Divide the mixture between four plates or bowls and serve.
Bavette al funghi with roasted mushrooms and garlic (Serves 4)
This is a filling, gutsy vegetarian dish that is packed with flavour. If you can't get hold of bavette pasta (the type I used was from Carluccio's), it would work well with plain or funghi-infused pappardelle.
400g bavette ai funghi or pappardelle 3 tbsp olive oil 300g mixed mushrooms (shiitake, chestnut, button etc) 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped 3 sprigs thyme, leaves picked and chopped small bunch parsley, leaves picked and chopped lemon, juice and zest 30g parmesan, thinly shaved 25g unsalted butter, diced and at room temperature salt and black pepper
Use a pastry brush or dry tea towel to brush off any dirt from the mushrooms, before slicing them thinly. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for the time stated on the packet. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a high heat. Add the mushrooms and leave to roast without stirring for 1-2 minutes. Reduce the heat, add the garlic and thyme leaves and a pinch of salt and toss everything together. Continue to cook for 3-4 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and three quarters of the zest. Add the cooked pasta to the pan, followed by three quarters of the parmesan and the butter. Toss gently to ensure that the pasta is well coated. Divide between four serving bowls and top with the reserved lemon zest and parmesan.
Hlalem pasta (pasta with beans) Serves 4
This is a very loose interpretation of a traditional Tunisian dish. It might be a little unorthodox but I think that orecchiette pasta works really well here; the little "ears" are perfect for catching the vegetables and sauce.
300g orecchiette pasta 2 tbsp olive oil 1 onion, peeled and chopped 2 stalks celery (plus the leaves if possible), chopped 1 small bunch parsley, leaves picked and chopped 2 tbsp tomato purée tsp harissa 1.2 litres water 75g broad beans or peas (defrosted) 100g cooked artichokes, sliced 250g cooked chickpeas Salt and black pepper
Garnish: handful parsley leaves
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for three quarters of the time specified on the packet. Heat the oil in a large, deep frying pan. Add the onion and cook gently for 3-4 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the celery, celery leaves (if using) and the parsley and cook for 2 minutes. Increase the heat slightly and add the tomato purée followed by the harissa. Continue to cook, stirring frequently for at least 3 minutes (otherwise the tomato purée will add a raw note to the finished dish). Pour over the water and bring the mixture to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pan with a lid and leave to simmer. After 15 minutes, remove the lid and add the broad beans or peas, artichokes, chickpeas and pasta. Season to taste and leave to simmer for a further five minutes. Divide the mixture between four serving bowls, scatter over the remaining parsley and serve.