I can save money by reducing the cooking time of my pasta, but that’s not the only reason to do it

I can save money by reducing the cooking time of my pasta, but that’s not the only reason to do it

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In June I had been back for a week in southern Italy, during which (don’t judge me) I ate pasta every day, with an indomitable impulse from now on to err on the side of extreme caution in cooking it myself; to serve my orecchiette and cavatelli as I found them in Lecce and Matera, that is: on the chewy side. Since then, I’ve wasted at least a minute, all my old times, and the result is excellent. Moderation on the hob translates not only into a better-to-eat pasta (a good thing in itself, as well as a vehicle for the sauce). It is much more satisfying. I find that I want less, which helps both the butt and the budget.

Pasta is really catching on now, right? The prospect of winter ahead is frightening, if not downright terrifying, and the pasta is comforting and filling, relatively inexpensive and almost infinitely versatile. In the small waking hours, when my brain is buzzing, I often think about it: a shape, a sauce, a bowl. Regular readers of this column will know that I have a soft spot for American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, and once I get down to dinner (penne with garlic, chilli and zucchini seems like a plan right now), I inevitably start fantasizing. about gravy from roast he describes in The man who ate it all – a Piedmontese sauce whose traditional ingredient, the dripping of beef, replaces (obviously it does) with a delicate homemade broth. It’s a fantasy because, given the price of gas, no one will want to cook for two hours this fall. Two minutes will seem sinful and decadent.

I like white truffle flakes as much as the next oligarch. But in essence, pasta is a simple thing

But let’s get back to the plot. In fact, pasta was not always served al dente. According to Luca Cesari, an Italian food historian, this is a relatively recent development, born mainly, though not exclusively, of an increase in gluten (before pasta was made only of durum wheat, it tended to be more humid if the people wanted it that way, or not). I discovered this fact, and about a thousand others, in the new book of Caesars, A brief history of pasta, which, attentive as he is to the origin of the stories, and therefore to the bases, could not be a more suitable reading at this moment if he tried. Pasta may have gotten more luxurious over the past 30 years; I like white truffle flakes as much as the next oligarch. But essentially, it’s a simple thing. Some of the ancient recipes Caesars collected – a couple date back to the 16th century – are so distinctly minimalist that it is surprising that anyone ever thought of writing them.

In the chapter dedicated to spaghetti with tomato sauce – pages that I practically inhaled – Cesari explains that the “Copernican revolution” in the world of pasta came in 1837, when a Neapolitan chef, Ippolito Cavalcanti, inserted “vermicelli with pommadore” in a section dedicated to home cooking in his book, Kitchen Theoretical-practical. This, he writes, is the birth certificate of al pomodoro: the moment in which what had been the tomato soup became a sauce designed especially for pasta. At the end of the century the combination was widespread throughout Italy, and made preparation even faster thanks to the canned tomatoes produced by Francesco Cirio, who grasped their immense potential (the Cirio company, still strong today, was born in 1856 ).

A good tomato sauce is so easy to make and cheap even if you use Mutti’s pulp. (I discussed this once with Yotam Ottolenghi and, like me, he believes they are some of the best canned tomatoes money can buy.) For the ultimate in delicacy, I think such a sauce requires – stand back, purists – a some sugar, some chicken broth or other meat broth (assuming you are not vegetarian) and a squeeze of lemon juice. I don’t want garlic, nor herbs, in particular, but I want onion – use an uncut half and remove it before eating – and a pinch of red pepper. Also, pepper and salt. Cook a lot at once and save some for later. So – how I wish I didn’t feel the need to write the following words! – the approximately 40 minutes it takes for such a combination to become a thing of alchemical beauty will not seem extravagant at all.

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