During a recent visit to The Middle East, Italian cooking maestro Antonio Carluccio talks to Penelope Walsh about Italy’s staple ingredient, and the topic of his latest cookbook: pasta.
Launched in 2014, your latest cookbook is Antonio Carluccio’s pasta. Why did you decide to write a book entirely dedicated to this ingredient?
I didn’t want to do it actually, because I already wrote one about 30 years ago! But I had a challenge there, to do something different from the first book. But I was approached by the publisher for this book, Quadrille, and I put in all my effort not to copy the last one, and to do something special. In the end I had fun doing it, because I discovered one or two entirely new pasta recipes that are really special.
Why is pasta so important to Italian cooking?
How many articles have you read that say, ‘pasta makes you fat,’ ‘pasta this,’ ‘pasta that?’ Pasta is always good, but it depends in what quantity, and in which way you eat it! If you eat it with tons of fat and salt it is obviously bad for you. We eat pasta in Italy, anyway, as a small course. The proteins and vitamins in pasta are very good for the body, providing you are not eating it with lots of fat. I ate pasta, not every day, but a lot of the time, and I still lost 30kg.
By eating low calorie pasta recipes?
No! Not by taking anything off the recipe, because you shouldn’t take anything off. The body needs everything, fat included! But in moderation.
What are the origins of pasta? Do you believe the story that Marco Polo brought it back to Italy from China?
Let me tell you something; pasta did not come via Marco Polo. It was existing already in the Roman times, 700 years or more before Marco Polo. Pasta was, in my opinion, created in China, but not as we know it today. They had noodles. Most probably it came to Italy, via India, and the Arabic countries, and then to Sicily.
So you think pasta did come originally from China, but not thanks to Marco Polo?
There is a museum of pasta in Rome that has evidence of somebody leaving a barrel of pasta to his nephew in his will. And that was hundreds of years before Marco Polo. We know the Romans were eating pasta known as ‘laganon.’ In some places you still see pasta called ‘lagonelli,’ which they ate with a sauce based on fermented fish.
What are the pitfalls of pasta making that a beginner should watch out for?
That you put too much flour, and too little egg. Then the dough becomes hard. Or that it becomes sticky in your fingers. Then you can add a little bit of flour to it.
Any insider tips to share?
The best result is when you use the old fashioned bronze die [a tool for cutting pasta], because it gives a roughness to the texture of the pasta. The modern die are coated in a layer of Teflon, or some sort of plastic. So then the pasta is very, very flat. Whereas with the bronze, the bronze itself is already a little bit rough. So the pasta has a certain roughness, helping it to collect the sauce.
Can you go wrong with actually boiling the pasta?
When you put the pasta in boiling water, the water should be a sufficient quantity, so that there is the correct concentration of starch to water. One litre of water per 100g of pasta. And 10g of salt per litre of water. This is in order to achieve a pleasant flavour for the pasta itself. Otherwise it has a flat taste.
Never ‘wash’ pasta with cold water. You lose everything by doing this. Never put oil in the pasta to stop it sticking. There are stupid chefs that do this. Water and oil don’t mix, so in this case, the oil is swimming on the surface of the water. You only do this with lasagne sheets, because then, as you put the sheets into the water they are coated with a little oil, and don’t stick together. For any other type of pasta, you don’t need to do this.
Do different shapes of pasta suit different types of sauce?
So, there are around 600 different shapes of pasta. The best sauce to go with fresh, handmade pastas are the simplest ones. Fry a little bit of garlic, tomato, oil and basil – this is Neapolitana style. There is a variety called trenette; this looks like ironed spaghetti. Spaghetti is round, the trenette is oval, like they are a little squashed. This is good with pesto, and with fish. With a ragu or Bolognese you should use tagliatelle. Spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t exist. Farfalle goes well with spring time vegetables, such as peas, artichoke and asparagus.
Do you have a next book in mind?
Oh yes. At the moment, I am writing a book about vegetables. Not for vegetarians, but for everyone. Because vegetables are not always given enough attention, and I want to get something really special out of them, which you can eat without needing fish or meat. There is another book that I have been wanting to write for years. It is my fantasy book. On mushrooms. There are over 200,000 types, although of this, there are only about 200 hundred that are edible, and 60 or 70 that are edible and worth eating.
The latest book, “Antonio Carluccio’s Pasta,” is now available to buy at Carluccio’s in Doha.
Antonio: ‘This dish uses giant penne, from Puglia.’
20g red chillies
20g garlic peeled
240g grano padano cheese
500g penne regine
1. Put a pot of water with salt on the stove to boil.
2. Cook the penne regine in boiling water till al dente (about ten minutes).
3. Grate the courgettes.
4. Finely dice the chillies and the garlic.
5. Heat the butter in a pan. Add chillies and garlic. Sauté.
6. Add the grated courgettes and fry for about a minute.
7. Add the cooked pasta to the pan and toss.
8. Add the grated grano padano cheese.
9. Season to taste and serve.