Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Pasta

I live on pasta, I crave it, I thrive on it, and it provides 90% of the protein in my largely vegetarian diet. Atkins bewildered me and the current low glycemic index diets scare me; I have to have my pasta. I know how the majority of Italians feel: a day without pasta seems incomplete. Though there's not one drop of Italian blood in me, I have the pasta lust in my soul.

To start this story, we need to wind the clock back a good many years. How is it possible that I have been out of college for a quarter century and just who was it that put my life on a speeding bullet train anyway? I was just out of grad school and for the first time ever was living on a budget that was not mere subsistence level. Before that, whatever money was left over after the rent and beer runs went to food. And by that, I mean mostly dried beans. For years, my food budget was around a dollar a day.

At the point where I finally had a little spare cash in my pocket, one of my coworkers was what we would recognize today as a foodie, although that term would not come into use for another 15 years. One day at lunch, he told me that he would only use DeCecco brand pasta because it was head and shoulders above the rest of the brands on the US market. These were the days when you had to find a speciality Italian grocery to purchase DeCecco; it wasn't on every supermarket shelf as it is today.

I wasn't really sure why he was making all this fuss over something so simple as pasta. Pasta was not a big thing at my house when I was growing up. We did eat it, but it was mostly spaghetti, and it was always one of the American brands such as Ronzoni or San Giorgio, both of which are made in a factory not three miles from where I sit typing this. I don't suppose there were any choices other than the standard American brands on the grocery shelf when my mother went shopping at the Safeway. And, I think she bought pasta on price, whichever was cheapest when she needed it was what came home.

So while I had been exposed to several brands of pasta, they were all pretty much the same to me and I was indifferent to them. The idea that there could be big differences between brands seemed an alien concept at the time. But, I did like to eat and cook and at my friend's urging, I spent some of my newfound money on a box of DeCecco pasta. And my life changed.

The great revelation that all pasta is not created equal started me on the road to understanding that in food, quality is everything. Before this point, I had taken a lot of foods including pasta for granted. After this point, I started exploring all kinds of foods and learned that there are vast and easily detectable differences in most foods. There's a world of flavor and texture difference in salt; olive oils are vastly different. And so forth and so on.

Once I discovered that pasta could be really good and not just something to fill up the stomach, it became a great food source for me. And coincidentally, it was just at this time that America started awakening to the joys of Italian food and we saw the proliferation of books by the likes of Marcella Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli. This brought pasta, especially fresh pasta, to the American kitchen. For a time, Bugialli was everywhere at once making fresh pasta.

It came to be in the late 1980s that you were no kind of cook if you didn't make your own pasta; foodies didn't use box pasta; foodies made pasta. So, I went through my fresh pasta phase with the rest of America and although I can still go right in the kitchen and knock out tagliatelle, taglierini, or maltagliati in dozens of hues and flavors, I no longer make fresh pasta except when I'm making ravioli or agnolotti.

Fresh pasta always left me lukewarm just like Mom's American spaghetti and it took a few months to understand why. Ultimately, I came to understand that even though fresh pasta was all the rage, for me, factory made boxed pasta was preferable. Fresh pasta lacks the tooth that dried pasta brings to the plate. And it is this al dente quality that I love so much about pasta and which drives me to seek out the larger, thicker cuts in preference to the thin cuts such as capellini and vermicelli.

Now looking back and having cooked thousands of pounds of pasta in over a hundred shapes and sizes, I still marvel that I can walk into most grocery stores and find not just Italian pasta, but a choice of brands. As a country, we've come a long, long way since I discovered that pasta is good.

And back to the light blue box that changed my life. DeCecco pasta is still rock solid across the entire product line and remarkably consistent from box to box, from year to year, from wheat crop to wheat crop, and decade to decade. I still eat a lot of DeCecco, but at home and at the restaurant, we've switched primarily to a no name brand made in Gragnano, the pasta capital of Italy. Our no name brand just feels and cooks slightly better than DeCecco, but because of the artisanal nature of their company, the range of cuts is extremely limited, so that leaves a lot of room in our pantry for the light blue boxes as well.

All great pasta including DeCecco and our no name brand is forced slowly through rougher bronze dies, rather than smoother modern Teflon-coated ones. The extra friction of the bronze dies slows production to a crawl when compared to the Teflon dies, but great pasta makers still use the traditional bronze dies. Why? Because if you taste samples of bronze pasta next to Teflon pasta, you can feel the difference. The rougher bronze die produces a rougher pasta. Not only is it less slick when cooked, sauce adheres better too.

If you never imagined that there could be vast differences in something as seemingly simple as pasta, perhaps you're in for a revelation of the sort that I experienced so long ago.

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