For perfect pasta, put aside your saltshaker prohibitions


A PLATE OF fettucini didn't have any flavor. Why? A friend asked me this recently, while describing a disappointing meal he'd had in a local restaurant.

I ticked off likely causes. Was the pasta overcooked? Was the fettucini swollen, limp and sticking together? No, came the reply; it simply had no flavor.

This answer pointed the finger of blame at what I think is a leading cause of blandness in today's cooking: a failure to use the saltcellar.

I suspected that the cook had failed to add salt to the pasta water. And without salt in the water, the inherent nutty flavor of the fettucini failed to appear. Trying to play catch-up by adding salt to already-cooked pasta doesn't have the same effect on flavor as adding salt during the cooking process.

I learned about the benign power of salt the hard way. I used to boil pasta in unsalted water, believing that salt was an unnecessary Old-World addition to the cooking process. For a time I bought the notion that salt was bad for me. Now I believe that as long as I remain free of blood-pressure troubles, salt is my friend.

My view of salt began to change after I ate pasta cooked by Italians. It had texture and subtlety and flavor. It was way beyond noodles. When I visited Italy and when citizens of Italy visited my home, I watched them cook pasta. They always salted the water, and they weren't shy about the amount they poured into the boiling water.

As a result I now employ what I call the "cover the waterfront" style of salting the pasta water. Once the large, 8-quart pot filled with cold water has come to a rolling boil, I pick up the shaker of coarse sea salt and start pouring. I make a large "Z" of salt in the boiling water, dumping in at least two tablespoons of the stuff. When the water again reaches a boil, the pasta goes in and is stirred occasionally with a wooden spoon until it is done. Pasta is done, I have learned, when it is chewy but not hard. The cooking time varies with the size of the pasta.

The other day, out of curiosity, I looked over the pasta-cooking techniques outlined in some recently published Italian cookbooks: "Diary of a Tuscan Chef," by Cesare Casella and Eileen Daspin (Doubleday, 1998); "Flavors of Tuscany," by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Broadway Books, 1998); " A Fresh Taste of Italy," by Michelle Scicolone (Broadway Books, 1997); and "Roa's Cookbook," by Frank Pellegrino (Random House, 1998). All said the correct way to cook pasta is in salted water.

There was some disagreement over timing. Some authors advocated adding the salt before the water boils, others after.

While looking through these books, I picked up a few other pasta-cooking tips.

Scicolone, for instance, recommends saving a half cup of the cooking water. Set it aside, she said, to add to the sauce if it needs thinning. The slight starchiness of the cooking water helps the sauce adhere to the pasta, she said.

After the pasta has been drained in the colander, Pellegrino recommends returning it to the pot, adding a half cup of sauce, turning the heat to high, then tossing the sauce and pasta together in the pot for about one minute. Then the pasta is poured into a shallow serving bowl and topped with additional sauce. This method, he said, allows the pasta to absorb the sauce, rather than letting the sauce simply coat the pasta.

These are fine points. The most important thing, according to the pasta makers, is to salt the cooking water, thereby helping to stamp out bland fettucini.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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