I used to have an Italian girlfriend from near Modena, Italy, also oddly enough called Angie too (technically Angela, but she was no angel). I stayed at her home for a couple of weeks, and her mum made awesome food for us. In many ways Angie’s mum was lovely, communication although a little difficult as her English near zero and my Italian fairly limited. Her cooking was superb, and the light home-made Italian sparkling wines, icing on the cake really. Food (& mum) I will never forget.
I decided to take the Pasta challenge into my own hands, after eating too many times, anaemic pasta with sauce dumped on top that came out of a jar or bottle. From a sustenance point of view great, I didn’t die, but to eat, really a pathetic attempt at “cuisine”. German and British probably the worst for this, cook pasta, cook sauce, put pasta on plate, dump sauce on top. Yuk. To add insult to injury sometimes you’re also provided with fake or stale parmasan cheese, that most Italian’s would have binned months ago and seems to be made out of “rind” or floor sweepings. Yuk again!
Bored with pasta ? Cook Tomato Pasta that tastes fantastic, I can show you how. Explode your taste-buds with #DonCharisma, http://wp.me/p3VKqb-iw
What I’ve learn’t about cooking Pasta with Tomato based sauce
1. It’s really hard to get awesome flavour out of jar or tin. Fresh tomatoes are desperately needed!
2. Cooking in the “right” way makes a world of difference
3. Don’t compromise on a simple dish like pasta, it can quite easily be made awesome
How to get “flavour”?
Tinned, canned, jarred tomatoes are great, simple and take the brainpower out of it. But there are often flavour disadvantages, such as lack of much or high acidity. Also it can be hard locally to get the finest tasting Italian fresh tomatoes. Solution, mix types and sources, so I use, tinned purée, pasata, tomato juice and fresh tomatoes. Not bottled ketchup!
Personally for my taste buds, Basil, the variety used by Italians which is what I’m talking about here, is a match made in heaven when combined with cooked tomatoes.
Plus some extras which I’m going elaborate on.
How to cook it the “right” way?
Simply cooking sauce and pasta separately, then dumping the sauce onto fully cooked soggy pasta, is the ignorant way to do it. The flavour, that is the sauce and the pasta are still separate. Like putting some cooked flour with a some melted butter and sugar drizzled on, isn’t really a biscuit. The sauce and the pasta need to become one. The Italians know this and have taken the time to figure this shit out properly, and take pride in their cuisine. Perhaps this is why Italian food is so popular in many parts of the world.
Pasta should be cooked for these purposes “al dente” that is slightly firm to the bite, just very very slightly undercooked. Even stop the cooking process by draining and rinsing the pasta with cold water, but this varies a bit with variety to variety of pasta. So that’s a learn by experience. Certainly don’t cook the pasta and let it stew in it’s own water, not cool the slimey mess you’ll end up with.
Tomato sauces take time to cook, for the flavours to stabilise and get right. Depends on which tomatoes and a bit of experience and tasting needed. Generally I nuke my diced fresh tomatoes in the microwave until they are a mush. I like to keep the skins as it adds to my experience.
Tomato sauce could take 15 mins or might let it boil for a couple of hours. Taste it see whether bitter flavours have softened a little. Oil helps to bring the acidity levels down a little bit, and really adds a great dimension to the sauce. So look cook it as long as you have to. Factors for cooking time will depend on what types of tomatoes you use, most canned or jarred are cooked already.
And for cooking tomato pasta, the real art if the “fusion” of the pasta and the sauce. Italians do this by cooking first pasta and sauce separately. They heat the sauce, hot, like very hot, with a little oil, in preferably a non-stick saucepan or frying pan. Chuck in the pasta, and cook it together like a stir-fry. Continuous stirring. This process only takes a few minutes, or less.
Once complete the pasta should have changed colour towards the colour of the sauce. Which means the sauce flavours are now in the pasta. FUSION.
Recipe, schm’ecipe, I don’t do recipes sorry. I cook by eye, by ear, by taste, by getting a feel for the food, the flavours involved, textures and their relationships. Get an idea of relative quantities of your ingredients, a knowledge of “the method” then bin that recipe book.
I love the experience of creating a custom, designer dish every single time. Each time I learn to cook better the next time. Recipe means no learning no mistakes and yawn, BORING, nothing new.
So look I’ll give you the outline, go figure this shit out yourself, be a creator, a leader not a sheep, tv dinner in the microwave type of person, where’s the creativity and fun in that?
Pasta, medium size penne is best to learn with, it presents well to the mouth and a very versatile pasta, and works well with this type of cooking. They should be around 1-1.5 inches long, and maybe a little more than 1/4 inch thick (uncooked)
Fresh Tomatoes preferable nice red ripe oval shaped ones. Tinned Tomatoes – chopped, diced, whole, up to you, I tend to cut up the whole ones. Tomato puree and Tomato Pasata. Just get a nice mix. And for god’s sake please don’t use Heinz Tomato ketchup, really, really not cool.
Oil, Olive is best, Extra Virgin isn’t always best for cooking (better for salads), so might want to use “ordinary” olive oil. Italian’s generally make good olive oil, Spanish mixed results. Some olive oil is utter crap, usually the cheaper stuff. So try, try, try until you find something that works well.
Basil, preferably fresh. For dried I suggest cooking that for a long time as it’s usually a bit powdery in the mouth. Some people prefer Oregano, personally not as great I feel, but up to you. Another possible is thyme, which has a nice mix with tomatoes. But personally I stick with basil. If you can’t get basil (like I can’t here), then use basil based Pesto.
Onions, sweeter is best, purée these, don’t spoil you’re pasta sauce with chunks of onion, not cool. But again up to you!
Garlic, best purée’ed or crushed, sliced – up to you depends on how you want to experience the flavour. Garlic powder, might get you by, but not great stuff, your tummy may not thank you.
Optional – Vegetable stocks, or purée’ed vegetables in liberal qualities, add an extra dimension.
Optional – Chillies, experiment with different types of chillies, they all taste slightly different. Only add if you want to arrabiata’ise your pasta (arrabiata in Italian I think mean “Angry”). Or you could garnish finished dish with a few chillies.
Optional – sugar, sometimes tomatoes are quite tart even slightly bitter. Use very liberal and only at the end of cooking the sauce, and then only after tasting.
Optional – balsamic vinegar, use liberally in the cooking of the sauce, if it’s not acidic enough. Not all balsamic are made equal, so you might have to kiss quite a few frogs before you meet your prince of balsamic. Keep trying, sweeter less acidic, thicker ones, without those heinous preservatives that destroy the balsamic taste, tend to be more expensive. Also balsamic is graded by age, the older the more expensive. Can also be used liberally on the finished pasta, to give it an extra dimension. Consider balsamic glaze for the finished dish.
Very Not Optional – Parmasan, not I don’t mean that crap container of pre-grated, stale shit. I mean the genuine, from Italy, slice of real Reggiano Parmigiano, with the rind still on it. Use the peel grater on your grater to get a powdery consistency. Sprinkle this most awesome of flavour filled stuff on the finished dish. Doesn’t tend to work so well in cooking into the sauce, unless you use quite a lot, which gets expensive fast, as the good stuff isn’t cheap.
Start cooking the sauce first. The tomatoes are the base, everything else adds or compliments it. You can boil fresh tomatoes but can take an age, I generally nuke them chopped/cubed in the microwave for 10 or 20 minutes, they are done when they are soggy. Add with your puree, pasata, juice (or whatever you’ve decided on) into a largish saucepan. Liberally add some olive oil into the mix, not too much, or you’ll have a hell of a job cleaning the kitchen afterwards (it “spits” with too much oil!). You can add bits of olive oil into the mix during the cooking process, as it gets integrated into the sauce (something soaks it up). Keep adding little bits of boiling water during the cooking process, as tomato sauces can and do stick. Keep stirring ! I don’t generally tend to cover the sauce whilst cooking, that usually ends up with burnt or boiling over. If you want to slow cook the sauce on low heat, then by all means cover, but keep checking regularly for sticking, and stirring.
Dried basil should be added early, you need to cook some moisture back into those leaves. Fresh herbs could be added right near the end, don’t need much chopping, but same as the garlic, personal preference and crushing/puree’ing etc tends to more evenly distribute flavour. Up to you, you’re the chef.
Garlic and onions get those in fairly early on. Powdered garlic I find does weird things with my digestion, so probably get that shit in very early on, cooking can do wonders, hopefully!
Veggie stocks and purées, probably get that shit in early, so it gets chance to integrate. Same with chillies, be careful not to put too much chillies, I have personally made dishes inedible by adding too many chillies. You have been warned!
Rationale – what we’re trying to do is get a balance or a good combination of the sweetness of the tomatoes, the acidity, the oil integration and the additional flavours integrating. It’s not hard, just keep tasting, add a little sugar if too tart/bitter, cook for longer if flavours don’t seem integrated or mature, add a little olive oil if it’s too acidic, add a little balsamic if it isn’t acidic enough. And so on, use your ingredient tools with a bit of knowledge about why they are in the mix, and it’s easy to create a masterpiece.
Pasta, I strongly suggest Penne, graduate to other varieties later. Usually they’ll be cooked to al dente in 5-7 minutes depends on pasta, so read the packet. Plenty of boiling water, don’t cover, add a little salt, but not too much, there’s nothing worse than overly salty food. Plus the diner can add salt if he wants to his meal.
Also try piece of pasta. Al dente means, just very slightly firm to the bite. It doesn’t mean melt on the tongue and it doesn’t mean it’s not cooked, still hard and gives you belly ache. Breaking one piece apart generally reveals the outer part is soft and fully cooked, but just a fraction inside is still slightly not cooked. Break one have a look, but don’t burn your fingers.
Once cooked, drain that shit with a colandar or sieve. Some pastas or if you’re planning on let it stand, you’ll need to rinse in cold water (stop the cooking process). Generally I don’t need to because my sauce is ready for the “fusion” by the time the pasta finished cooking.
Fusion, now you need to perform a miracle, a parting of the seas, a walking on water, that will transform you Pasta plus Sauce into Pasta AND Sauce.
Have your cooked pasta and cooked sauce done, ready. Into a large saucepan or frying-pan or wok, preferably non-stick, some olive oil along with your sauce which should be runny’ish not soupy and not peanutbuttery. Middle ground, the water will partially evaporate and partly be absorbed into the pasta. Heat it hot, like really hot ready for flash cooking, not so hot it burns. Chuck in the pasta and keep stirring, the aim is to “fuse” the sauce with the pasta. Stir it like a stir fry, vigorously, continuously and keep on scraping the sauce off the bottom. Add a little boiling water if it’s getting too dry. This should only take maximum a few minutes, maybe as short as 60 seconds or less.
Depends on how watery your sauce is, you want the finished pasta, for the sauce to stick to it, but still be a sauce. Take immediately off the heat. Your pasta is done !
You could if you wish, chuck the chopped fresh basil in at this last “fusion” stage for an extra-basil’ly flavour. Or even sprinkle on as last stage of serving up.
Serve on a plate with the Parmasan cheese in a side bowl and allow the diner to decide how much he wants to put on. Perhaps, a very small amount of good quality Balsamic vinegar, or Balsamic syrup/glaze. And either a small drizzle of olive oil, or serve let the diner decide how much to put on. Chopped chillies maybe. Again, up to you here.
I have a very small kitchen, two hotplates and microwave, no oven, so not possible to do step by step pictures, so pictures are from public domain.
It is very possible to do this entirely in a microwave, I’ve done it before, results not quite as good, but it works. Basically cook the sauce in the microwave quite watery, and add the pasta cooking water once sauce is cooked. Then chuck the pasta to cook in with the sauce as the final stage.
Also, for those without much time or talent, then it’s also possible to buy jar, tubs etc of pretty good pasta sauce and use the same method. Important part is the fusion of the pasta with the sauce in this situation. Not as good, but again it works and will be better than dumping the sauce onto anaemic pasta.
Another option is to bake the pasta, and this can achieve the same cooking in “fusion” with sauce and pasta.
Thanks to Angie for sharing her ketchup recipe, which gave me the idea to share my Pasta knowledge.
It’s very possible to cook tomato pasta that’s a veritable taste explosion, just needs some time, preparation and fun in the kitchen. My “method” I’ve picked up bits from watching Italian chefs, ex-girlfriends and a bit of common sense with the ingredients’ personalities. I hope this will inspire at least a few people to be creative in the kitchen, and realise their full potential as Italian chefs or chef’ettes. At the very least, I hope a few people will have some taste exploding pasta to eat.
Happy to receive any positive comments, suggestions or anything else useful. Always happy to take million dollars in cash from anyone who doesn’t know what to do with it, it would be spent creatively and wisely LOL