IIn June, I returned from a week in the south of Italy, during which (don’t judge me) I ate pasta every day, with an unquenchable desire to be extra careful from now on when I cook it myself; to serve my orecchiettes and cavatelli as I found them in Lecce and Matera, which is to say: on the chewy side. I have since deleted at least a minute of all my old times and here is the result excellent. Limiting the heat doesn’t just result in pasta that’s better for eating (a good thing in its own right, as well as a vehicle for sauce). It’s much more satisfying that way. I find I want less of it, which helps both the back and the budget.
Pasta is really coming into its own now, isn’t it? The prospect of winter ahead is daunting, if not downright terrifying, and pasta is comforting and filling, relatively inexpensive, and almost infinitely versatile. In the wee small hours, when my brain is buzzing, I often think of this: shape, sauce, bowl. Regular readers of this column will know that I like American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, and once I tackle dinner (a garlic, chilli and courgette mousse seems like the plan at the moment) I inevitably start fantasizing about roast sauce he describes in The man who ate everything – a Piedmontese sauce whose traditional ingredient, beef, he replaces (of course he does) with a delicate homemade broth. It’s a fantasy, because at the price of gas this fall, no one will want to cook anything for two hours. Two minutes will seem sinful and decadent.
But back to the texture. In fact, pasta is not always served al dente. According to Luca Cesari, an Italian food historian, this is a relatively recent development, born mostly, though not exclusively, from increased gluten (before pasta was made only from durum wheat, it was moister, whether people wanted it yes or no). I discovered this fact and about a thousand others in Cesari’s new book, A brief history of pasta, which, as attentive as it is to origin stories, and therefore to foundations, couldn’t make a more relevant read right now if it tried. Pasta may have become more luxurious in the last 30 years; I like white truffle shavings as much as the next oligarch. But basically it’s a simple thing. Several of the ancient recipes that Cesari collected – two dating back to the 16th century – are so intensely minimalist that it’s a wonder anyone ever thought to write them down.
In the chapter devoted to spaghetti al pomodoro—pages I practically inhaled—Cesari explains that the “Copernican revolution” in the pasta world came in 1837, when Neapolitan chef Ippolito Cavalcanti included “vermicelli co le pommadore” in a section on homemade kitchen in his book, Kitchen Theoretical and practical. This, he writes, is the birth certificate of al pomodoro: the moment when what was until now tomato soup becomes a sauce created specifically for pasta. By the end of the century, the combination was popular throughout Italy and made much quicker to prepare thanks to the canned tomatoes produced by Francesco Cirio, who understood their enormous potential (the Cirio company, which is still going strong today, was founded in 1856 d. ).
A good tomato sauce is so easy to make and cheap, even if you use Mutti’s pulp. (I once discussed them with Yotam Ottolenghi, and he, like me, believes they are among the best canned tomatoes money can buy.) For maximum deliciousness, I think such a sauce requires—stand aside, purists—some sugar, some chicken or other meat stock (assuming you’re not vegetarian) and a squeeze of lemon juice. I don’t want garlic or even herbs, particularly, but I do want onion – use one uncut half and remove before eating – and a hint of chilli. Also, pepper and salt. Cook a lot at once and save a little for later. Thus – how I wish I didn’t feel the need to write the following words! – the 40 or so minutes it takes to turn such a combination into alchemical beauty will hardly seem extravagant.