Reviewing a cookbook can be quick and easy. You usually start talking about your impression when you open the book for the first time, the way recipes are featured and how easy it is to follow them. Then comes the ultimate test of the recipe itself that you have carefully chosen according to your cooking skills. Although a disaster could be funny to report, there is a slight chance that guests will never ring at your door again if the recipe turns into a nightmare!
When looking at the new Silver Spoon: Pasta cookbook featuring more than 350 recipes that the successful Silver Spoon team released a few weeks ago, I couldn’t stop thinking that pasta is more than a simple and basic dish that most people cook when there is nothing left in the fridge. There is something more to pasta. There is a spirit. A way of life.
However, only a true Italian could describe the particular relationship people have with pasta and why this dish has become one of the most popular meals around the world. Have a seat and relax, the time has come to give the honour back to pasta.
From Ghigo Berni – San Lorenzo Fuoriporta
“Pasta is a snowballing juggernaut of meaning and memory. It is both simplicity and the mother of invention. It is alchemy of Water, Durum Wheatflour and later on Egg. Combined, massaged and then rolled, cut, extruded, plaighted, combed, shaped and twisted into myriad forms, each one specific to a culinary purpose. Only the successful marriages which ensue withstand the test of time. They are untouchable, sacred, and often made in heaven.
“The water, flour combination goes back way back beyond the Qin dynasty. It is perhaps the oldest story in gastronomy, after bread the millennial combination of flour, water and, only later, yeast.
“Pasta has a specific dimension provided by the high gluten and protein properties of Durum wheat, but when you add the magic of an egg, the pasta assumes a very different personality. It gains color, depth, flavour, plasticity and higher nutritional value. It makes the dough more malleable, sculptable and easy to cook, using only hot, salted water. There are many different combinations of flour types to further add character and the pasta can be cooked immediately or air-dried for later consumption, lending yet subtler dimensions.
“In a way, the addition of the egg to the oldest form of simple food (ground starchy seeds and water) signals the beginning of settled populations. Where poultry farming appears, nomadic existence ends and human time, space and energy become available to further the cause of culinary evolution.
“Paradoxically, it was often during times of hardship that the most classic pasta dishes were conceived. Borne of scarcity, extracting the maximum potential from hard-earned ingredients, Italian pasta creations are often the paragon of simplicity, rustic elegance, and refinement.
“There should be no elogism to any one chef, rather there should be an understanding that Italian pasta today is the culmination of generation upon generation of maternal tradition. It is also a historical human endeavour, a conversation with our ancestors, a connection with unwritten texts and traditions, a testament to shared cultural influences with Arabia and the Far East. There is a Zen quality to a well-conceived pasta dish which reflects the rules of natural harmony, of Ying and Yang.
“Ricotta and spinach are generally domesticated within the protective wraps of pasta (ravioli, tortelloni, etc.). Mingled with strega liqueur, ground coffee and nutmeg, the parcels are anointed delicately with butter, tomato and parmesan.
“Other partnerships tend to remain as equals. Tuna, shellfish, pigeon, hare, and boar must remain wild among the spaghetti strands, free to roam the pappardelle, or able to randomly populate the cavities of more complex pasta shapes. All the animals should be wedded to their respective pastas using the vegetables and herbs familiar to their habitats.
“Pasta is so universal that it can accompany just about any edible life form, and the combinations which make up its vast, growing repertory have been tried and tested for generations. All the time, new forms appear, novel combinations are created and many fall into the waste bin of failed experiments. Yet the creative attempts to form fresh relationships continue unabated, yielding occasional gems which become tomorrow’s classics.
“Pasta, like noodle, is a wonderful culinary form. Its universality is unquestionable, its popularity unbeatable. Yet the basic format is as simple as bricks and mortar. A gifted architect creates shapes which complement a building’s natural surroundings, and a good cook will look for similar methods to recombine nature’s local produce in a wholesome, poetic way in order to create an enduring recipe.
“Ground seeds and water. Whether these be corn, rice, wheat, flax or buckwheat, the basic principle is to form structure and bulk; it’s the blank, nutritional canvas onto which we can add the more expressive ingredients available to us. Pasta, as the Italians have conceived it, exists when shape, tonality, flavour and texture lend character to the canvas itself, allowing it to interact more intimately with its culinary marriages. It’s an inescapably romantic union, as when a man makes the effort to dress with understated elegance, he complements the more interesting sartorial virtues of a woman.”
Tagliatelle with Leek Bechamel – Tagliatelle con Besciamella ai Porri – Serves 4
For the béchamel sauce
40 plain flour
500 ml lukewarm milk
200g semi soft cheese, diced
Melt the butter in a saucepan.
Stir in the flour and cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly for 2-3 minutes until golden brown.
Gradually stir in the milk, a little at a time. Bring to the boil, stirring constantly, lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes until thickened and smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the fontena.
For the leek bechamel
25 g butter
2 tbsp olive oil
50g speck or smoked bacon, diced
100 ml béchamel sauce (see above)
1 tbsp fresh parsley chopped
275g fresh tagliatelle (I used Spaghetti instead)
Melt the butter with the oil in a saucepan.
Add the leeks and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes.
Add the bacon or speck and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes then stir the mixture in the béchamel sauce. Season with salt and pepper, stir in the parsley and keep warm.
Cook the tagliatelle in plenty of salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes until al dente.
Drain, transfer to a warmed serving dish, pour the béchamel mixture over and serve.
Published by Phaidon Press