Italian cooking

Pasta: You ain’t tasted nothin’ yet

Posted on 17/03/2011. Filed under: Italian cooking, pasta, spaghetti | Tags: , |

When I was a kid, growing up in Australia, I used to think it was pretty exotic to sit down to a meal of Heinz Spaghetti in Cheese & Tomato Sauce. If we were particularly hungry, Mum would serve it on a slice of toasted bread.

“The Italians have this every day,” she would announce. “Thank your lucky stars you were born in Australia!”

Mum was a very good cook and when we compared her magnificent casseroles and oven-baked pies with Spaghetti in Cheese & Tomato Sauce on toast, we felt very sorry for the Orlandi kids who lived down the street. I was well into my teens before I tasted pasta as the Italians know it.

We lived in far North Queensland and lots of Italians had migrated there after the Second World War to cut sugar cane and later to become owners of sugar plantations. My Dad had business one Saturday which took him to a timber mill in the tropical rain forest near Ingham. They had barracks for the single mill workers and employed an Italian woman to do the cooking. They invited us to stay for lunch which turned out to be a simple spaghetti al pomodoro. On the table was a bowl of something that looked a bit like sugar and turned out to be grated parmesan cheese.

“You lika pasta?” the Italian woman, Mariana, said to me with a friendly smile. What was in front of me looked nothing like what I’d been used to as spaghetti. I’d never heard of pasta and spaghetti meant Heinz.

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “I’ve never eaten it before.”

She looked across at Dad, accusingly. “Why don’t you feed the boy?”

Dad looked very defensive. “We often have spaghetti at home, but it comes out of a can.”

Mariana exploded. “Out of a can! You gotta be jokin’. You ain’t tasted nothin’ yet. Here, darlin’. Give me your plate.” And she heaped it up with the spaghetti and its rich sauce.

I was about to take the plate when she stopped me.

“Hold on! It ain’t pasta without the parmesan.” And she sprinkled two heaped tablespoons of cheese on the spaghetti. “Try that!” she ordered me with a smile.

I somehow managed to get a forkful of the pasta from the plate into my mouth and underwent a life-changing experience. From that moment, I have always judged pasta against that  “food of paradise” served that day by Mariana. I have eaten pasta in some of the finest restaurants in Italy, but I have never had anything which affected me the way that plate of food affected me that Saturday in the 1950s in the sawmillers’ barracks in far North Queensland. Even now, I am still affected and tears well up in my eyes as I remember this unforgettable experience.

Some of you may think I am exaggerating when I describe the effect this incident had upon me. But my fate was sealed. From that moment, I was an Italian who would one day marry into the Italian community.

To commemorate this life-changing experience, I intend to end this post by giving you the recipe that Mariana may have used to prepare her spaghetti al pomodoro.

Ingredients

  • 500g spaghetti
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
  • 1 teaspoon hot chili flakes
  • 3 cups of chopped fresh tomatoes and their juices
  • 20 leaves fresh basil, cut into fine slivers (chiffonade)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Procedures

1. Bring 6 litres water to a boil in a spaghetti pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt. Heat a 10- to 12-inch sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and garlic, and cook until light golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add the chili flakes and the tomatoes, and cook over medium heat, stirring to keep the garlic from cooking any browner until the tomatoes just start to burst or deflate, about 5 minutes.
2. Remove the pan from the heat, and set aside. Drop the spaghetti into the boiling water, and cook until 1 minute less than the package instructions call for. Drain and toss in the pan with the tomatoes; place the pan over high heat and toss to mix well, about 45 seconds.Remove the pan from the heat, add the cheese, then the basil, and toss well to mix. Then pour into a heated bowl, and serve immediately.

NB. You can buy the spaghetti from your local grocer. However if you want the very best spaghetti, you will make your own. In a future post I’ll show you how to make your own pasta. You’ll never be the same again!

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