I sat with three close Italian friends and my Italian husband as they, some quite literally, rolled with laughter.
“And then, and then,” my friend Marco said, gasping for breath between laughs, “They cooked the pasta for TWENTY MINUTES!”
“It’s like cooking it in a pressure cooker!” my husband agreed.
“I’ve heard that they add pasta to cold water,” said Arianna, “but I’ve never seen them cook it in a pan.”
The consensus was clear: Not only do Americans not know anything about food – they can barely cook pasta! And I have to say America, I couldn’t do a lot to help us out.
This basic fact of life – that Americans suck at cooking Italian food, even the most basic of all Italian foods: pasta – pisses Italians off so much there’s even a Twitter account dedicated to it.
Our conversation came about when Marco, a tall, skinny Italian who idolizes the fine ingredients and sheer simplicity of classic Italian recipes, was accused of trolling “Tasty” cooking videos on Facebook. You know the type, the ones shot completely from above, where a mysterious hand adds hundreds of pre-measured ingredients to create a hyper-caloric, “easy” one-pot meal. “Disgusting,” he comments. One time, completely in Italian, he remarked, “you should be ashamed of yourself.” Though it reads strong now, I invite you to imagine the dozens of positive comments in English, “Oh my god delish!” , “I can’t wait to try it!” and then the one foreign comment, completely random: “you should be ashamed of yourself.” It has its charm.
I have to admit, I’m a little bit fed up with those videos also. Acquaintances and friends who regularly publish work-out videos or discuss their weight loss plans also seem to be the ones who post the “one-pan lasagna” recipes with three pounds of cheese. It can hardly be considered Italian.
I realize that the videos create a democratic sense of cooking – anyone can do it! Look how easy! – and I’m all about that. The real problem comes from American-made pasta. I am the American ambassador (read: punching bag) when it comes to our pasta, and there’s little I can do to defend it. Insipid, limp, overcooked, processed – it’s just not good.
Pasta is the hallmark food of easy cooking. Anyone can do it! College students can do it! Small children! Old people!
Anyone can do it, yet as of now we’re not doing it well. Lucky for us, it really is easy to do. Just tweak a thing or two and your thrice-weekly pasta meal will be something you can be proud of.
Americans, This is How You Make *Good* Pasta:
- Put a large pot of water on to boil – you need more water than you think.
- Once it’s boiling, add a healthy spoonful of salt. Taste it. Does the water taste salty? If not, add a bit more.
- Allow to come back to a boil (the salt sometimes cuts the boil) and add the pasta.
- Set a timer. You think that pasta is flexible with time limits, but it’s not. Besides the salt, most mistakes by American home cooks is grossly over-cooking the pasta. It should still be ever-so-slightly firm when served, known as al dente. Check package instructions, but most dry pastas need to be cooked about 9-11 minutes.
- Drain the pasta into a colander. Add to your sauce that you’ve already heated up in a large pan (no opening the jar and dumping on top!). A little bit of pasta water added to the sauce will help its flavor.
Cooking pasta is as easy as that. The two biggest points being: add salt to your water and don’t cook it too long.
For those really ready to take it up a notch, you’ll need to flavor-up your sauce. American supermarkets sell shelves and shelves of various different pasta sauce options. Most of them, however, are shit. Make your own. I promise, it’s so, so much better! Make a great marinara by creating a uniform soffritto, a mix of finely diced onions, carrots and, if you wish, celery sauteed in fresh olive oil. Add a basic tomato sauce and, if you have it, a leaf or two of basil and you’ll have Italy’s basic tomato sauce. From there, you can add nearly anything you’d like! This is a great base for a seafood spaghetti, or you can add sausage and olives, mushrooms, guanciale and cheese, the choice is yours.
The point is, everything is better made from scratch, and it’s hardly as difficult as it may seem. Italians have known this for centuries and, unlike Americans, have never forgotten it. Those Facebook recipe videos are fun – certainly the camera angle is attractive – but they present a dish as something super simple and yet use dozens of ingredients. Take a cue from the Italians and use few but fresh ingredients for the best dinner of the week.
Oh, and don’t forget to salt your water!