Penelope Walsh meets Italian cooking maestro Antonio Carluccio during his recent visit to Dubai, to talk about Italy’s favourite ingredient and the topic of his latest cookbook.
You launched Antonio Carluccio’s pasta this year. Why did you decide to write a book entirely dedicated to this ingredient?
I didn’t want to do it actually, because I already wrote one about 30 years ago. So it was a challenge to do something different to the first book. But I was approached by the publisher, Quadrille, for this book and I put in all my effort into not copying the last one and creating something special. In the end, I had fun doing it, because I discovered one or two entirely new pasta recipes that are really special.
How many pasta recipes are there in the book?
More than one hundred.
Why is pasta so important in Italian cooking?
How many articles have you read that say ‘pasta makes you fat’, ‘pasta this’, ‘pasta that’? Pasta is always good, but it depends on the quantity and the way you eat it. If you eat it with tons of fat and salt it is obviously bad for you. In Italy, we eat pasta as a small course. The proteins and vitamins in it are very good for the body. I ate pasta, not every day, but a lot of the time, and I still lost 30 kilos.
By eating low-calorie pasta recipes?
No! Not by taking anything off the recipe, because you shouldn’t take anything off. The body needs everything. Fat included! But by eating it in moderation.
What are the origins of pasta? Do you believe the story that Marco Polo brought it back to Italy from China?
Let me tell you something, pasta did not come via Marco Polo. It already existed in the Roman times, 700 years or more before Marco Polo. Pasta was, in my opinion, created in China, but not as we know it today. The Chinese had noodles. It most probably came to Italy via India and the Arabian countries, then to Sicily.
So you think pasta did come from China originally, but not thanks to Marco Polo?
Yes. It is historically true that it came before Marco polo. There is a museum of pasta in Rome that has evidence of somebody leaving a barrel of the food to his nephew in his will. And that was hundreds of years before Marco Polo. We know the Romans ate pasta known as ‘laganon’. In some places you still see pasta called ‘lagonelli’, which they ate with a sauce based on fermented fish.
How difficult is it to make fresh pasta?
Easy as! Take one hundred grams of flour – it should be 00 flour, which is especially fine. Not semolina as this is used in factories. Fresh pasta is made with egg. You have to allow the egg to combine with the pasta so the molecules stick together well. Take a rolling pin – you don’t need a machine – and roll it out very, very thin. Then cut it in to ribbons as you like, to whatever thickness you want – can have tagliatelle, pappardelle and so on. As a child, my job was to undo those ribbons [he laughs]. The most important thing is to work the pasta in such a way so that you collect all the flour with the egg. When you work it together, you get a very soft dough, and then rest it a bit.
What are the pitfalls of pasta-making that a beginner should watch out for?
Putting in too much flour and too little egg. Then the dough becomes hard. Or that it becomes sticky in your fingers. If this happens you can add a little bit of flour to it.
Any insider tips to share?
The best result is when you use the old-fashioned bronze die [a tool for cutting pasta], because it gives a lovely roughness to its texture, since the bronze itself is already a little bit rough. This helps the pasta to collect the sauce. The modern die is coated in a layer of Teflon or some sort of plastic, which makes the pasta very, very flat.
Can you go wrong when it comes to boiling the pasta?
When you put the pasta in boiling water, the water should be a sufficient volume so that there is the correct concentration of starch to water – one litre of water per 100g of pasta and 10g of salt per litre of water in order to achieve a pleasant flavour for the pasta itself, otherwise it has a flat taste. Never wash pasta in cold water. You lose everything by doing this. Never put oil in the pasta to stop it sticking. There are stupid chefs who do this. Water and oil don’t mix, so in this case, the oil is swimming on the surface of the water. You only do this with lasagne sheets, because then, as you put the sheets in to the water they are coated with a little oil, and don’t stick together. For any other type of pasta, you don’t need to do this.
Do different shapes of pasta suit different types of sauce?
There are around 600 different pasta shapes. The best sauces to go with fresh, handmade pastas are the simplest ones. Fry a little bit of garlic, tomato, oil and basil – this is Neapolitana style. There is a variety called trenette, which look like ironed spaghetti. Where spaghetti is round, trenette is oval, like they are a little squashed. This type of pasta is good with pesto and with fish. With a ragu or Bolognese you should use tagliatelle. Spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t exist. Farfalle goes well with spring-time vegetables such as peas, artichoke and asparagus.
Do you have a next book in mind?
Oh yes. At the moment, I’m writing a book about vegetables. Not for vegetarians, but for everyone, because vegetables are not always given enough attention and I won’t to get something really special out of them, which you can eat without needing fish or meat. It will be published in 2016. There also another book that I have been wanting to write for years. It is my fantasy book. On mushrooms. There are more than 200,000 types, although of this, there are only about 200 hundred that are edible and 60 or 70 that are edible and worth eating.
Antonio Carluccio’s Pasta. Dhs135. Available at Carluccio, various locations including Deira City Centre (04 250 1950).
Antonio’s Penne Giardiniera
The spinach balls:
600 young spinach leaves.
2 medium eggs, beaten.
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed.
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.
50g fresh breadcrumbs.
20g Parmesan, freshly grated.
Olive oil for shallow flying.
1. Cook the spinach leaves in salted water for a few minutes.
2. Scoop out and set aside to cool.
3. When cool, squeeze out most of the moisture and chop the leaves (not too small).
4. In a bowl mix together the spinach, eggs, garlic, nutmeg, breadcrumbs and Parmesan.
5. Make some balls the size of a large walnut and shallow-fry in the oil until they start to brown on all sides. Set aside.
The Penne Giardiniera:
Antonio: ‘This dish uses giant penne, from Puglia’.
500g renne regine.
20g red chillies.
20g garlic peeled.
240g grano padano cheese.
24 spinach balls.
1. Bring a pot of water with salt to the boil.
2. Cook the penne regine in boiling water until al dente (for about 10 minutes).
3. Grate the courgettes and finely dice the chillies and the garlic.
4. Heat the butter in a pan. Add the chillies and garlic and sauté.
5. Add the grated courgettes and fry for about a minute.
6. Add the cooked pasta to the pan and toss.
7. Add some grated parmesan cheese and season to taste.
8. Serve in four pasta bowls with six spinach balls on top of each.