Note from the Editor: this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 9 October, 2012.
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
Italians are in love with their food. We are blessed by an abundance of it by mother nature; cooking it with passion is what makes Italian food special and, we believe, our life happier.
"What you do is memorable, when you put your heart in it". This is what grandma Elda, kept telling me when as a young boy I spent long afternoons in the warmth of her stoves. I remember waiting with anticipation for the week when she prepared the tomato sauce for the whole year. Her home was full of tomato baskets, empty bottles that need to be sterilized in boiling water, and the pots where the precious sauce was cooking for long hours. My help was much in demand and I was excused to have tomato all over my clothes: happy days. I grew up in the kitchen: the afternoons after school at my grandma's, the evenings helping my mom, who despite a long day at work never failed to prepare a fresh dinner for the family, the Sundays with my dad who after church prepared fresh pasta and his roast.
Today I continue my love affair with food as a professional private chef. I go to my client's home, or they come to mine, and I cook for them a four course Italian dinner. Why do people choose me? There are plenty of good Italian restaurant in Hong Kong, trendy and classic. At the level of cooking I am talking about the technique, the best ingredients, the atmosphere of where you eat are taken for granted, or should be. What I believe is the reason of my success is that I bring happiness at the table. I make my client happy by guiding their imagination into a journey, which rotates around an exotic land, Italy, and its culture and traditions. It is an experience, and as such is eventful, surprising and joyful. This is, I believe, what ultimate dining is about.
Many of my clients love cooking as well, and ask me for suggestions. Practice, lots of it, makes your cooking perfect, but cooking a great meal that will make you and your happy is easy and I believe everyone can do it. A bit of knowledge is needed, but just a little bit. In my view what you really need to be a great home chef are five virtues.
- You must have a love affair with food and sharing it with friends;
- Be willing to source for the best ingredients. Hong Kong offers a great range of quality products from all over the world as well as local organic produce (I use The House of Fine Foods, www.hoff.com.hk). Great dinning comes only from the best ingredients;
- Take your time for cooking, hurry is not friend in the kitchen;
- Cut small and cook little. In general, the best way to preserve the flavors of quality food and their nutrients is to cook for little time;
- Be daring and humble: better a simple dish well done than a complex one that is not satisfying.
Pasta is at the hearth of Italian cooking, as Sophia Loren put it: "everything you see I owe to spaghetti". Cooking pasta well is simple, but many are intimidated by it. This week I would like to share the procedure, completed with the key secret you don't read in cookbooks, on how to cook pasta. There are two main type of pasta: fresh and dried. The fresh one is made with egg and it should be made at home; there is no product in the market that is able to reach the good taste of home made fresh pasta. It is mainly used for filled pasta, like Ravioli and Tortelli or cut into long stripe for Tagliatelle and Paparedelle. Spaghetti, Linguine, Maccheroni and Penne are the dried pasta, made of durum wheat flower. You don't make these at home. The point of each type of pasta is the marriage with its sauce. Spaghetti is best with oil and tomato based sauces, which have nothing too chunky, so that the sauce can cling into it. Penne instead are best with sauces with meat and vegetables, so that they are trapped inside the tubes, whereas with the spaghetti it will get left on the plate.
Buy a quality Italian pasta. Everywhere in Hong Kong you can find the brand De Cecco, which is a very good one. Notice the cooking time is above 10 minutes. Be suspicious of anything that cooks below six minutes. You need a high cylindrical pot, possibly made of stainless steel. The formula is straight forward: one liter of water for 100g of pasta, which is the amount of pasta for one person. This is the minimum amount of water, anything above is good too. There is never too little water: to cook properly the pasta needs enough space to swirl around easily. Don't cook more than 500g of pasta together; if you have more than 5 guests, use two pots. Once the pasta is at a rolling boil, add 10g of coarse salt for each liter of water and after one minute add the pasta. While it cooks, don't leave it alone but gently stir it from time to time. Everyone has it own preference of a cooked pasta or firm to the bite, " al dente" as we say it in Italy, but generally you should make sure that the pasta stays firm, not too soft.
Here’s the secret for pasta as it is done in restaurants: when taken out of the water the pasta tends to soak up a lot of liquid. If you add your sauce at this point, it will absorb all the moisture of your sauce and you will end up with a dry dish. Instead, take the pasta out one minute before the time you would consider it ready. Mix it together with your sauce on a pan over the fire and add some broth or the water you used to cook the pasta, say around 4cl per person. Don't be afraid if it looks full of water, in half a minute the pasta will absorb all the water and the flavors of your sauce. When almost all the liquid is gone, take the pasta out of the pan and add the Parmesan cheese and herbs as needed. Buon appetito.