Facts About Pasta and Risotto
It is believed that the Italian explorer, Marco Polo, introduced the idea of pasta to Italy in the 13th Century. He spent many years in China and brought noodles with him when he returned to Italy.
The word pasta actually means 'paste'. It is a paste of flour, water and sometimes egg.
Nowadays, there are hundreds of different pasta shapes available!
Italians choose their pasta very carefully as different shapes and sizes are better suited to certain dishes. For example, if you're cooking a soup such as il minestrone or il brodo you should use small shapes such as stellete (little stars) or acini di pepe (peppercorns).
If you are preparing a dish containing big pieces such as prawns, then long pasta is best. As you twirl your fork around the pasta, the pieces get caught up and you can enjoy it all in one bite!
Italians never ever use a spoon to help them with long pasta! This might sound a little crazy but it's true. If you want to look really Italian next time you're at a restaurant or on holiday here's how to do it:
Use your fork to lift up a few strands of pasta. Spin your fork round and round. The pasta strands will be wound around the fork, ready to be eaten. With a little practice you'll soon learn.
Un bel tocco di stile! Great style!
It is extremely important that the water is already boiling when putting pasta in the saucepan. The water reaches boiling point more quickly if it is kept covered by a lid. However, the lid should be kept removed whilst the pasta is cooking.
Italians add a small handful of coarse salt - il sale grosso - to the boiling water before adding the pasta. They do not use il sale fino - fine salt - for this.
Why use coarse salt?
Coarse salt is traditionally used because it is easier and less messy to hold in the hand over a steaming pan and it is cheaper than fine salt. As it is simply going to be dissolved, there is no need for it to be a particular salt - so the cheapest version is the most convenient.
The salt is added to the water when it is boiling and not before. This is because ready-salted water would take longer to reach boiling-point.
There are two types of pasta: dried pasta - la pastasciutta and fresh pasta - la pasta fresca. The dried variety is the more common one. It is hard because it has been dried so that it will keep for a long time. It is packaged and stocked in supermarkets all over the world.
Fresh pasta can be made at home using flour, water and, if you wish, eggs. Fresh pasta made with eggs is called la pasta fresca all'uovo. Fresh pasta remains soft and only keeps for a maximum of two or three days in the refrigerator.
la pasta fresca
Ravioli are fresh pasta parcels that come with a variety of fillings such as ricotta, spinaci - spinach, funghi - mushrooms and carne - meat. The origin of the word ravioli may have come from the word in Italian dialect rava (turnip) therefore meaning 'little turnips'.
The official Italian word for turnip is rapa.
Fresh pasta cooks in just a few minutes and is less al dente than cooked, dried pasta. Al dente literally means 'to the tooth' - in other words, not soft but firm when you bite it. That is generally how Italians like their pasta (and rice) to be cooked.
I wonder what Italians would think of tinned ravioli or spaghetti? Mamma mia!
Here are a some pasta shapes and the meanings of their names:
farfalle = butterflies
penne = quills / pens
fusilli = spindles
spaghetti = little strings (from the Italian word spago - string)
capellini - little hairs (a thin version of spaghetti)
capelli d'angelo = angel hair (an even thinner version of spaghetti)
cappelletti = little hats
vermicelli = little worms
conchiglie = shells
cannelloni = big tubes
tortellini = little pies
fettucine = little slices
tagliatelle - cuttings
The Agnesi family opened the very first pasta factory near Genova in 1824. A few years later, the Buitoni family opened their pasta factory. Both companies still exist!
Before the existence of pasta factories, people made their own pasta and would hang it outside to dry. Below is a photo of people in Palermo, Sicily, hanging out gli spaghetti to dry.
Photograph: 'Palermo. Fabbrica di maccheroni' by Giorgio Sommer, 1834-1914
There is a belief that the long pasta known as le tagliatelle was created in 1502 by a chef in honour of Lucrezia Borgia's long blond hair.
Lucrezia lived from 1480 till 1519. She was also known as Lucrezia d'Este and she was Duchess of the town of Ferrara.
Le tagliatelle - this pasta is often wound and formed into a shape known as un nido - a nest.
If you are gluten-intolerant there is now a wide variety of gluten-free pasta available. It is called la pasta senza glutine. Instead of wheat, it is made using a mixture of corn flour and cornmeal.
Il riso Arborio is the most well-known Italian rice used in risotto dishes. It takes its name from the town of Arborio in the Piemonte region. The cultivation of Italian rice is called la risicoltura.
Another type of Italian rice is il riso Carnaroli. The grains are slightly smaller than Arborio and absorb liquid better without leaving too much starch, making it an ideal choice for risotto. It is grown in the Pavia, Novara and Vercelli provinces of Northern Italy.
An Interesting Fact: The famous Italian chef called Gaultiero Marchesi invented a very special type of risotto. Its main ingredients are lo zafferano - saffron, il burro - butter, il vino bianco -white wine and l'oro - 24 carat gold! This risotto di lusso - luxury risotto - is topped with a thin leaf of gold which softens with the heat from the rice.
Gaultiero Marchesi sadly passed away in December 2017 but his famous dish still lives on.
If you wish to try it, it is served at his Michelin star restaurant situated next to il Teatro alla Scala di Milano - the famous opera house in Milan.
This risotto dish is referred to as il risotto oro e zafferano.