A paean to pasta

Our columnist has come a long way since su­pect­ing that spaghetti was her favourite food aged eight. She’s moved to Rome, been schooled in pasta the Ital­ian way, and can con­firm that, yes, spaghetti takes top spot

The Guardian - Cook - - Rachel Roddy’s Favourites - Rachel Roddy Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writ­ers food writer and cook­ery writer awards for this col­umn. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Head­line Home) is out now; @rachelal­iceroddy

We are back, tem­po­rar­ily, in the flat I lived in when I first moved to Rome 13 years ago. Friends keep ask­ing how we’ve man­aged to fit all our things into such a small space. My an­swer is that we didn’t, that we are merely liv­ing around them in a sort of do­mes­tic Tetris, which my six-year-old finds most en­ter­tain­ing. I don’t. But I do have great af­fec­tion for this small sec­ond-floor flat, which shares an in­ter­nal court­yard with a bread shop and trat­to­ria, as in many ways it is the rea­son I be­gan writ­ing about food in the first place. Stuffed to the gun­nels we may be, but we are wo­ken by the thick scent of bread be­ing pad­dled from the ovens. Then, later in the day, as the trat­to­ria comes to life, the siren scent of cured pork meet­ing a hot pan, sul­phurous greens and the steam from bas­kets of pasta makes its way up two floors and through our front door.

It was at the trat­to­ria be­low and in the flats of neigh­bours on ei­ther side where I first tasted many of the clas­sic Ro­man pas­tas for the first time: gri­cia, car­bonara, am­a­tri­ciana, the spicy arrab­bi­ata cling­ing to quills of penne; where I first en­joyed spoon­fuls of pasta e fa­gi­oli (pasta and beans); and rose­mary-scented pasta e ceci (pasta and chick­peas). Also sturdy pil­lows of ravi­oli dressed with melted but­ter and sage, rib­bons of pasta with chicken liv­ers and – my desert-is­land dish – a tan­gle of spaghetti and clams. Years be­fore, as I dili­gently tried and failed to wind the strands around the fork, I told my mum spaghetti was maybe my favourite meal. I must have been eight. I was 32 when I knew it was.

I knew little about Ro­man food and spoke no Ital­ian when I first ar­rived. This was frus­trat­ing but, in ret­ro­spect, quite use­ful with re­gard to cook­ing, as it meant that ad­vice was best demon­strated. You don’t need words to understand that the Ital­ian love of pasta is vis­ceral, nor to understand the strength and tenac­ity of Ital­ian food habits and their sin­gle-minded be­lief about how things are best done. I did find it in­tim­i­dat­ing, es­pe­cially when com­bined with the of­ten hurt­ful thoughts about the English and their food. Dented I was, but none of this was enough to punc­ture my en­thu­si­asm or de­ter­mi­na­tion.

I had cooked pasta all of my adult life, but had never tasted any­thing like the dishes in Rome – and later Si­cily. I was happy to re­learn the most ba­sic things: how to cook pasta, to sauté a clove of gar­lic and make the sim­plest tomato sauce, how to match a shape with a sauce, to flip a pan and bring dis­parate parts to­gether. I watched and I copied. Add to this a new part­ner whose nonno was a Si­cil­ian tomato and wheat farmer.

These days Oretta Zanini De Vita’s en­cy­clo­pe­dia of pasta never leaves my desk. Ev­ery time I look at this as­ton­ish­ing com­pen­dium of 300 shapes and 1,500 re­gional vari­a­tions, I re­alise that my ex­pe­ri­ence of pasta, de­spite my years and travel, is min­i­mal, and that Ro­man in­flu­ences pre­vail. We eat pasta al­most ev­ery day and they are ev­ery­day pas­tas, which means the no-non­sense sort – a few in­gre­di­ents com­bined boldly in a way that makes sense, re­spect­ing tra­di­tion but never let­ting that get in the way of a meal. I have writ­ten about most of them in this col­umn, and re­peated three favourites in to­day’s pages. There is also an­other ragu, this week’s new recipe, and it is one that pro­vides two meals.

Like so many Ital­ian recipes, the foun­da­tions are fun­da­men­tal: pancetta and a great hand­ful of chopped car­rot, cel­ery and onion cooked un­til soft and fra­grant. Then the meat – in this case a whole piece – which is browned and fol­lowed by wine and tomato, and which bub­bles away un­til the sauce is glossy and the meat ten­der. The meat has a dou­ble role here, lend­ing rich juices to the sauce while re­tain­ing enough flavour for an­other course or meal, ide­ally with green sauce.

I have adopted the Ro­man habit of toss­ing the pasta first with cheese, which cre­ates a bet­ter sur­face for sauce to cling to. Whether you add

cheese be­fore or af­ter, toss vig­or­ously, send­ing steam and al­lur­ing aro­mas to your neigh­bours.

You don’t need words to understand that the Ital­ian love of pasta is vis­ceral

1 Pasta with braised beef ragu (on the cover) Serves 4-6

100g pancetta, diced

4 tbsp olive oil

2 white onions, peeled and finely diced

1 cel­ery rib, finely diced

1 large car­rot, peeled and finely diced

8 sprigs pars­ley, finely chopped

600-800g bone­less beef in a sin­gle piece (brais­ing steak)

500ml red wine

400ml pas­sata

2 bay leaves

Salt and black pep­per

Ex­tra stock or sim­ply wa­ter

500g dried or fresh pasta

Parmesan, for serv­ing

1 In a large, heavy-based pan with a lid, fry the pancetta in the olive oil un­til it has ren­dered its fat, then add the veg­eta­bles and pars­ley and cook un­til soft and wilted – about 10 min­utes.

2 Add the beef to the pan, turn­ing to brown on all sides. Raise the heat a little, add the wine and let that bub­ble and evap­o­rate for a few min­utes be­fore adding the pas­sata, bay leaves, a pinch of salt and grinds of pep­per.

3 Lower the heat so the sauce sim­mers gently, then cover the pan for two hours or un­til the meat is very ten­der and the sauce re­duced and thick but still very much a sauce – check by lift­ing the lid from time to time, adding stock or wa­ter if the sauce seems too thick. Re­move the meat and save it for the sec­ond course or an­other day.

4 Bring a large pan of wa­ter to the boil, add salt, stir, add the pasta and cook un­til al dente. Re­heat the sauce if it has cooled. Tip the pasta into a large warmed bowl, add a hand­ful of grated parmesan and toss, add the sauce and toss again. Di­vide be­tween bowls, hand­ing round more parmesan. Serve meat as a sec­ond course with green sauce, per­haps.

2 Baked pasta

Warm 5 tbsp olive oil in a large, heavy­based pan, then add a finely chopped white onion with a pinch of salt and cook un­til translu­cent. Add in tinned plum to­ma­toes, roughly cut up along with a pinch of dried red chilli flakes, bring to the boil then sim­mer for 20-30 min­utes, stir­ring oc­ca­sion­ally. Add in a hand­ful of fresh basil in the last 5 min­utes, bal­anc­ing the flavours with salt and sugar if nec­es­sary. Half­cook 500g pasta, drain and mix with half the sauce, then layer in an oiled oven­proof dish al­ter­nately with sauce, 500g moz­zarella slices, a hand­ful of basil leaves, fin­ish­ing with a layer of sauce, 100g grated parmesan and bread­crumbs. Bake un­til crusty and golden at 180C/350F/gas 4 (20 mins).

3 Tagli­atelle with burst­ing to­ma­toes

Put a gently crushed gar­lic clove in 6 tbsp of olive oil in a cold pan and gently heat, with­out brown­ing. Add 1kg cherry to­ma­toes and a pinch each of salt, oregano and red chilli flakes, then stir un­til glis­ten­ing. Cover and cook for 10 min­utes, shak­ing the pan un­til all the to­ma­toes have burst. Squash with the back of a wooden spoon to help re­lease the juices. Stir in a hand­ful of ripped fresh basil. Cook 500g tagli­atelle, re­move from the wa­ter and tip into the sauce, stir­ring in a little cook­ing wa­ter if nec­es­sary. Di­vide and serve.

4 Cour­gette car­bonara

In a large fry­ing pan, cook 1 sliced medium-sized onion and 300g cour­gettes cut into 5cm strips, in 5 tbsp olive oil with a pinch of salt un­til soft – about 10 min­utes. Whisk to­gether 2 eggs, 2 egg yolks, 70g grated parmesan, a pinch of salt and lots of pep­per. Cook 450g lin­guine un­til al dente, re­serv­ing some cook­ing wa­ter, then add to the veg­eta­bles, stir­ring. Turn off the heat and, work­ing quickly, add the egg mix­ture and a splash of the cook­ing wa­ter, stir­ring vig­or­ously to coat well. Serve topped with ripped basil leaves.

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