Perfect Pasta Prep

perfectPasta2Many of you have contemplated adding pasta to your menu but may still be reluctant. Well it’s time to cast your worries aside. I’ve written about pasta in the past and have even lead demos at International Pizza Expo. My goal now is to bring you through the most important part of making it happen — perfect pasta preparation!

Let me start with the very basics. There are two things that must happen before a single noodle can hit the pot of water. First, the water must be heavily salted. If you’ve ever been in the ocean, I imagine at some point you have gotten a mouth full of seawater. I hope you remember what that tasted like because that’s how salty I want your pasta water to taste. You can achieve that by putting 2/3 cup of salt into 4 gallons of water. Secondly, make sure your water comes to a full boil before you place your pasta in the pot. I’m not talking about a slight simmer either. Get the water to a full, rolling boil.

Now, you are ready to cook your pasta but there are a few things that are critical to successful pasta prep. One, don’t overcrowd the pot with too much pasta. Remember if you are using dry pasta, the pasta will absorb the salted water and expand in size. I’ve seen cooks put two parts pasta into three parts water, and before the pasta is fully cooked it has absorbed all the water and can’t continue to cook properly. They inevitably scorch the bottom of the pot and that burnt flavor will permeate through the rest of the pasta and ruin it all. Eight pounds of dry pasta in 4 gallons of boiling water is a good ratio that you should cook in a 5-gallon pot.

The second critical point I want to make is that you must frequently stir and move your pasta around, especially once it first goes into the boiling water. This is what keeps it from sticking together. I like to use an extra long pair of tongs to stir my pasta so I can pull the strands apart from each other. The wider the pasta’s surface, the more opportunity it has to cling to one another. Fettuccini will stick more than linguini, and dry lasagna noodles just love sticking together. I don’t like to waste oil, so I don’t oil my water. Some people say it will prevent your pasta from sticking. I say that simply adding oil to your water won’t achieve that goal and a few minutes later will simply go down the drain. The oil will come in handy after the pasta is cooked, however.

Although these points that I’ve shared with you thus far are all important, this next step, if not followed correctly, will throw all your previous efforts down the drain. You must cook your pasta about 90 seconds less than al dente. Al dente literally means “to the tooth.” As a culinary term that means to the bite, slightly firm or not overcooked. Most Americans and many restaurants overcook their pasta. Since I’m teaching you a method of cooking pasta that will be rinsed and chilled and then dipped in boiling water to order, you must slightly undercook your pasta in order to get it to the perfect texture as you are serving it to your guest.

I remember one of my first jobs as a teenage cook in a diner-type restaurant that had spaghetti on the menu. They would pre-cook the pasta and then store it in water, which is the absolute worst thing you can do! Another foolish thought is to think if you shut the heat off under the pot of pasta, that since the water is not boiling any longer, that the pasta is no longer cooking. Wrong! As soon as your pasta is slightly under al dente, I want you to drain it and immediately rinse it in cold water. This will mean that you’ll have to move the pasta around under the running water. This process should be completed within a couple of minutes.

Do not allow there to be any warm spots at all, otherwise the pasta will continue to cook slightly. While the pasta is still wet from rinsing it, pour about a half-cup of oil over the pasta and massage it in. Now you are ready to store your pasta under refrigeration. I would suggest that with portion bags, you portion out your pasta to the appropriate size (8 to 10 ounces for an entrée-sized portion). This will allow you to stock only what you need for each shift on the line instead of having a large container of pasta where your staff will never consistently portion the same every time. You will have a three-day shelf life on your pasta, so only cook what you anticipate serving for a two-day period. Have a small pot of water (unsalted this time) with a strainer basket on a grill or burner on at all times during meal periods. You will need to replenish the water many times throughout the day. When you get an order for pasta, as long as the water is at a boil, you only need to submerge the cooked pasta in the boiling water for 30 to 40 seconds. Then be sure to drain it well before it goes into the dish to ensure you are not serving a watery pasta entrée.

Although the cooking procedure is the same for all pastas, the cook time will vary from pasta to pasta. For example, thin spaghetti will take approximately seven minutes to cook where angel hair will take only three minutes to cook.

Tip: If you are using fresh pasta, use all the same procedures but know that your pasta will cook in approximately three minutes.

2013 March: Perfect Pasta Prep

Rigatoni al Filo di Fumo

Yields: 4 Servings

¼ pound pancetta in a chunk about ½ inch thick
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 cups canned plum tomatoes (juices drained), crushed
½ cup frozen peas
1 pound cooked rigatoni
½ pound shredded or chopped fresh mozzarella
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Pare the rind from the pancetta and cut the meat into a small dice. In a large sauté pan set over medium heat, cook and stir the pancetta until it starts to get crisp around the edges.

Add the oil to the pan. Put the garlic through a garlic press into the pan. Add the tomatoes and peas. Raise the heat and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the sauce, breaking up the tomatoes with a fork or spoon.

Add the rigatoni to the pan with the tomatoes. Immediately add the mozzarella and toss to combine.

Divide the pasta among four heated pasta bowls. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese over each serving.

Jeff Freehof owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at the Pizza Expo family of trade shows.