Monday, May 23, 2016

The Spaghetti Snob - What to Look For in a Good Pasta

Sequelitis has set in as I have been meaning to do a follow up to my Risotto Snob piece a few months back. It is time I put down my thoughts on what is a decent plate of pasta because frankly, it is rather dismal out there when it comes to good pasta dishes.

Beyond endless cafes churning out less than respectable pasta, even the fine dining ones come up short fairly regularly too.

Just about the few restaurants that I will heartily recommend include the twin siblings of Open Farm Community and Open Door Policy, and Chef Mashashi's incredible chorizo vongole spaghetti that was cooked to a perfect tee.

The thing is, and this is one of my biggest pet peeves, that too many diners focus on the seemingly ingenuity and gimmickry of pasta plates instead of zooming in on what's really important. Looks and copious amounts of caviar and ikura are enough to win one over these days.

Saucy, not watery

First, let's start with a common ailment when it comes to pasta sauces. Watery moats of soupy sauce/cream inhibiting a pasta dish is just a big No No.

The authentic way of coating the noodles strands is with just enough sauce and some rigorous tossing in the pan. Most cafe pastas simply bulldoze their way through this aspect and instead, try to compensate with an overabundance of watery sauce.

Sauces, when done correctly, will leave only a slight residual trace on the plate once you finish the last strand of pasta, and when coated correctly, there is this perfect alchemy of eggy pasta and saucy mixture that should taste heavenly.

The pasta itself should not look stale or dull, but instead, has a glossy and saucy look about it.

Fresh Ingredients and Condiments

Another shortcut that a lot of cafes employ is powdered herbs and minced garlic. If I smell or see any of these, it will be such a huge turnoff. Pasta is an Italian classic, and Italians emphasise freshness and fresh produce.

It is not that hard nor tedious to get fresh garlic and herbs and spend a little more time preparing them for use. Minced garlic has that ghastly preserved taste that makes you want to have the runs and powdered herbs are not only dull in looks, they smell artificial and lack that fresh fragrance that you would get from fresh ones.

And cafes that use commercialised bottled sauces should simply be called out for a blatant lack of effort. Sourish tomato sauces that have been artificially kept alive are just so unhealthy and bad.

And cream pastas should not have any actual cream in it. Italians use a combination of starch from the pasta and pasta water, with the emulsion of good cheese to create the creaminess in their pasta dishes. When the pasta looks paler than the cream sauce, you know Houston's got a big problem.

Ditto for powdered cheeses. Italians are even so picky on which cheese to use for which pasta dish, and even the once revered Parmesan is not favoured over specific Italian favs like Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino for your really authentic Carbonara or Gricia dishes.

No Necessity for Fresh Pasta

A common myth is that the best pasta dishes are made from handmade fresh pasta. Contrary to what you might think, it is not necessarily when it comes to the noodle variants of pasta, especially ones like spaghetti and linguine.

It applies when it comes to larger, flatter and fatter pastas like raviolis, pappardelle and freshly made hand-cut pastas. There is a discernible difference. Most established restaurants here and in Italy still use boxed pastas as it is more consistent and there is more emphasis placed on the sauce and the actual cooking of the final pasta dish.

And when it comes to describing pasta on the web, it gets really weary to read "pasta was cooked al dente". Seriously, if a chef or cook cannot even get this part right, you can forget about the sauce and everything else.

Using only a fork

The best pastas (noodle ones) should be eaten with just a fork. Why? A spoon is not required if the pasta has been properly coated with the sauce as there should be no evidence of a soupy moat.

You should be able to sink your fork into the noodles comfortably and twirl and lift them up with ease and see the strands looking smooth, shiny and relaxed. Twirl-ablility should be a rating implemented for every pasta review.

If you can lift up the entire pasta like a solid clump, it means it is far too dry and there is not enough sauce to loosen the noodles. A good pasta should be eaten with just a fork and nothing else, unless it's vongole where you need to peel open the clams and discard the shells.

Pasta the Star

Just like what I said about risotto being the star, the pasta should always be the hero of the dish. If you see a cafe trying to serve you a pasta dish with a chunk of ribeye or pork chop, you can almost be certain their pasta is not up to scratch and they need something else to take centerstage.

The best pastas also happen to be the classic ones and there is a reason why it is so. It is proven, especially with the likes of the Carbonaras, the Bologneses, the Amatricanas and the humble but hard to pull off Aglio Olios. Each of these classics has an amazing history and an undeniable flavour profile.

These days, cafes try to up their game by coming up with ridiculous variations to try to stand out among the crowd. Salted egg yolk and tom yam pastas may sound like a good combination, and under the watchful eye of an Italian pasta master, they might even be decent. But they won't be the best pasta you will ever have.

The thing is, and this is my advice for cafes, try to get the basics and the classics right first. Ditch the powdered and bottled stuffs and get the chefs and cooks to master their basic pasta dishes. Once you get the fundamentals right, there is no reason a simple and modest plate of aglio olio will not taste and sell well.

Pasta is something everyone likes as it is one of the most comforting and satisfying dishes around if you cook it perfectly. Equally, when it's wrong, it can be genuinely horrifying.

Then again, maybe the best way to get a good plate of paste is learn to cook it yourself. It is not that hard and it takes some practice to get it right. But once you do, it is a lifelong skill you can use forever.

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