I have a personality quirk. Don’t look so shocked, I am not perfect you know.
To prove my point I have a simply classic Italian pasta dish: Strozzapreti alle Cime di Rapa e Guanciale (Strozzapetti Pasta with Broccoli Rabe & Guanciale). My version has guanciale in it. This is a staple in Italy. Of course it can be made without guanciale and with any shape pasta. But I would advise that you choose one of the denser, chewier styles such as strozzapreti, orecchiette, or gemelli. I chose this dish for this rant today because I want to talk about pasta. And I mean the noodle itself.
I like 100% durum wheat pasta with no enrichment. I am not anti-vitamin. I just don’t like these additives in my pasta. I have a reason for the strong opinion. So I hope you don’t just think I am being a picky bastard just because I can. Picky eaters are a pet peeve of mine. So you can imagine that I am a bit embarrassed to admit that almost all of the pasta I see in the stores doesn’t really suit me.
Pasta was originally a Southern Italian dish. Particularly Sicilian. Eventually the cultivation of wheat moved into other areas of the country, and pasta became a common food item all over Italy.
Northern Italian pastas are generally pastas with fresh eggs and ¨soft” wheat– soft wheat is lower in protein and gluten content. Bakers tend to like flour from soft wheat for batter-based foods like cakes and biscuits. Think cake flour. The soft wheat and egg produces pasta that has a silky texture. These pastas are often prepared as stuffed pastas (like ravioli) and in Italy they are called Pasta Fresca.
The South specializes in dried durum wheat semolina pasta. These are made without egg and are typically dried, and are called Pasta Secca. They use the “hard” high gluten durum wheat because it allows the pasta to hold its sometimes-intricate shape better. Of which there are approximately 3500 different shapes.
The durum also helps the pasta maintain an al dente consistency in cooking. Which refers to the amount of “bite” the noodle has retained after cooking. Proper al dente is the point where the pasta is tender, but still chewy.
I prefer dried pasta to fresh pasta 9 out of 10 times. Fresh pasta has its place in our world. So please do not misunderstand me and throw a tantrum. Because all I am saying is the difference between dried and fresh pasta is pretty substantial. You can’t feel threatened by that. Can you?
Now the reason I prefer dried pasta is because I like the “bite” that it has. This bite is more pronounced when the gluten content is high. Which is why I prefer dried pasta that is 100% durum wheat and water. Nothing else, because all the “else” lowers the gluten content. I know I must sound crazy. Gluten-free is the trendiest thing in food since, well– sliced bread.
Okay, are you still with me? I realize I am getting really geeky. But I want to prove I have a method to my madness.
Because pasta made for the American market can be very disappointing; especially the dried pastas– that’s because pasta made in this country or made elsewhere for consumption in this country contains niacin, riboflavin or thiamine. Check the label. You will see what I mean. The extra stuff that gets added to dried pasta is known as enrichment. Good stuff that’s good for ya– yeah, in theory. I am not against the healthful benefits that these enrichments must provide. But dang it all if they don’t change the texture of pasta. So I look for dried pasta without these additives.
It’s hard to find very good Italian pastas without enrichment even in the very best markets. You can pick up a package that says made in Italy and think you are getting the real deal. Authentic Italian pasta should contain hard wheat and water. The very best ones have nothing else at all in them. Even the good stuff from Whole Foods may very well have been made in Italy for an American consumer and still contain additives; just check the label if you don’t believe me.
That does not mean you can’t get good pasta in the United States. Good Italian markets or gourmet specialty shops will carry brands like DeLallo, Latini, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Maestri and La Molisana.
These brands are quite a bit more expensive (of course) than the grocery store varieties, but it really only works out to about 50 cents a person in the long run.
None of this means I don’t buy cheaper enriched dried pastas. I do. Regularly. I like DeCecco and Barilla quite a bit. But sometimes you want to splurge and enjoy that special bite that can only come from the very best. So it’s good to arm yourself with the knowledge and understand what you are buying and what the differences are.
Okay, I have tried my very best to explain the character flaw of mine. Whaddya think? If you still think I am just being a picky bastard then so be it. Just don’t tell anybody. I like rolling my eyes at picky eaters…
Adapted from La Cucina Italiana
serves 4 CLICK here for a printable recipe
- 1 bn broccoli rabe, trimmed
- 3 oz guanciale or unsmoked bacon
- 6 T olive oil
- 1 c coarse plain breadcrumbs
- 1 lb dried strozzapreti, gemelli or orecchiette pasta
- 1 c parmesan, shaved or grated
Cook broccoli rabe in a large pot of salted boiling water until tender, about 5 minutes. Reserving water, transfer broccoli rabe to a colander, then rinse under cold water to stop cooking. Gently squeeze out excess water, then roughly chop.
In a large skillet, combine guanciale and 4 tablespoons oil; heat over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until guanciale begins to crisp, about 4 minutes. Add broccoli rabe and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes more. Transfer mixture to a large serving bowl (big enough to toss the pasta). Return skillet to medium heat; add remaining 2 tablespoons oil and breadcrumbs. Cook, stirring constantly, until breadcrumbs are golden, about 5 minutes; remove from heat.
Return pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, drain pasta and add to bowl with broccoli rabe. Add breadcrumb mixture and 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking liquid. Toss to combine. Moisten with extra pasta cooking liquid, if desired. Serve immediately, sprinkled with cheese.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD