Pasta, for me, is the ultimate comfort food. In Italy, it’s generally eaten at least once a day, and for many Italians a meal would feel incomplete without it. This is reflected in my beautiful new release, The Pasta Book.
From a simple spaghetti served with olive oil, garlic and chillies (olio, aglio, peperoncino) to more elaborate baked dishes like a beautiful classic lasagne, pasta can be quick, simple, healthy, nutritious and versatile. I see pasta as “fast food” because it’s quick to cook and the best sauces are uncomplicated and equally speedy to make; while the pasta is cooking in one pot, the sauce is bubbling away in another! Pasta is a meal in itself and most recipes don’t require a lengthy preparation, meaning you can get a family meal on the table in just a few minutes.
There is a pasta shape and recipe for each day of the year and more! In Italy there are over 600 different pasta shapes on the market and new inventions every day, so there is always something new to discover and taste. Italians feel strongly about certain pasta shapes being paired with certain sauces (something I think is only really understood in Italy). In my new book, I have generally followed these rules: long pasta such as spaghetti or linguine tends to go with quick-cook, light sauces such as a simple tomato or fish sauce, and short shapes such as penne or farfalle marry well with heavier, more robust-tasting sauces.
Nutritionally, pasta can also be excellent – perfect for growing kids and all the family, especially if you go wholemeal. It is an ideal carbohydrate because it releases energy slowly; it is highly digestible and the lack of fats makes it suitable for low-calorie diets. Contrary to popular belief that pasta is stodgy, it can be as light, fresh and summery as you like. Mix some pasta with my simple tomato sauce or homemade pesto for a quick and nourishing fix, or try my wild rocket and pecorino orecchiette (from the book) for a light but perfectly balanced meal.
Wholemeal pasta, in particular, is a source of several difference micronutrients like iron, magnesium, zinc, copper and several B-vitamins, which we need to keep our nervous systems and metabolic systems healthy. Some experts claim pasta is not only healthy and nutritious but also boosts serotonin levels, a substance associated with feelings of peace and contentment. When I was young, my mother, of course, knew nothing of this, but when I was in a foul mood she used to make my plate of pasta a bit larger than normal and tell me to eat it all up and I would feel better. And, as if by magic, I did.
I was brought up cooking with fresh seasonal, locally grown ingredients, and I have always stuck to this philosophy as a chef and when cooking at home. It made perfect sense, then, to split The Pasta Book into seasons.
As a child, I looked forward to each new season in anticipation of the delights it would bring. Autumn is probably my favourite time of year, with its wild mushrooms, walnuts, chestnuts and more. Spring has serious merits, though; there something so special about its fresh peas, broad beans, asparagus, herbs and young salad leaves. And summer brings our beloved tomato, ready to be preserved so we can enjoy them in pasta dishes throughout the coming year, as well as abundance of peppers and aubergines. Even winter has its charm, with comforting pasta bakes and rich game sauces. Combining seasonal produce with pasta is a sure and simple way to ensure you are eating a healthy balanced diet which is also kind on your purse.
I love the versatility of pasta; it can be egg-based or made with water, and sauces vary greatly region to region. In Southern Italy, for example, flavours are stronger, with lots of garlic and chilli; by the sea, sauces are fish-based; and in Northern Italy sauces tend to be more delicate and creamy. The north is also famous for filled pastas, like ravioli and tortellini, and bakes such as lasagne and cannelloni.
Pasta can also be made in advance and served for parties or on picnics. I love making pasta salads when entertaining for a large crowd, like my pasta salad with grilled peppers and olives. You can add whatever you like – tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, red onion, tuna, olives, pickles, sliced leftover sausages, prawns, cannellini or borlotti beans – the list is pretty much endless. My daughter loves it so much she often has it cold with her favourite ingredients as a packed lunch at school.
It is also traditional in Italy to use leftover pasta to make a pasta frittata. I like to take these with me on picnics, or when I go foraging into the woods; they make a wonderful, nutritious meal when you’re out and about, and taste lovely cold, too.
I have included a wide variety of pasta dishes in The Pasta Book; recipes reminiscent of my childhood, like involtini of beef in tomato sauce (a Sunday lunch favourite), or octopus linguine, and sausage & broccoli spaghetti. Each chapter includes a filled pasta, such as cappellacci or ravioli, to suit each season, as well as a baked pasta dish, ideal for making in advance and perfect for catering for larger numbers. There is also a section on handy tips for making and cooking pasta, as well as a chapter on basics to help you get started, from simple tomato sauces to making your own fresh pasta dough.
I hope you will enjoy recreating my recipes from The Pasta Book – it’s a perfect year-round guide to Italy’s most popular and versatile food.
Happy cooking, and buon appetito!