Simply food

PASTA, THE ULTIMATE COMFORT FOOD

Penne Alfredo with salmon

As we continue to suffer the current and long-term effects of the pandemic and lockdown, most of us crave comfort food as much as anything. Personally, I’d trade a plate of pasta for a hug from family members any day, but lacking even the lightest human contact, I’ll have to settle for the pasta.

In my blogs and cookbooks I’ve written about several favourite forms of pasta that are deeply satisfying: from spaghetti Bolognese (the ‘spag bol’ of my youth), to baked lasagne, simple dishes like macaroni and cheese, home-made pappardelle carbonara, penne carbonara, penne cheese pie, fusilli with meatless sauce, famous pastas like fettuccine Alfredo, and today I’m still experimenting with new ways to present pasta.


Fusilli bucati corti

Often in restaurants you’ll see pasta with spring vegetables called pasta primavera, which just means ‘springtime’ in Italian and doesn’t describe any particular shape. Today I’m cooking with penne and rotini, not to be confused with fusilli. Correctly, fusilli is made from thin strands of pasta wound around a rod, whereas rotini is extruded to form a screw-like shape. The best is fusilli bucati corti. Manufacturers often get the names mixed up.

Pasta is simple to make, just durum flour, water and egg, but making the flour was the hard part in olden days. Historians believe that the dish probably took hold in Italy as a result of extensive Mediterranean trading in the Middle Ages. From the 13th century, there are increasing references to pasta dishes across the Italian peninsula. The 14th century writer Boccaccio recounts in The Decameron a mouth-watering tale of a mountain of Parmesan cheese down which cooks slide macaroni and ravioli to greedy mouths below.

In Naples pasta was being machine-made by the 17th century with devices for kneading and pressing, making manufacture less expensive. In 1740, a license for the first pasta factory was issued in Venice. During the 1800s, water mills and stone grinders were used to separate semolina from the bran, beginning another expansion of the market for pasta.

Penne Alfredo with salmon and rotini Alfredo with chicken. Outstanding comfort food and easy to prepare.
Rotini verde

By the 15th century, dried pasta became popular for its easy storage, which encouraged its use on ships exploring the New World. Within a few years, pasta was everywhere. Now there are more than 300 types of pasta: long or short, flat or round, hollow or fancifully shaped, large or tiny. Along with that, pasta shapes rejoice in over 1,300 names.

One enduring legend is that Marco Polo brought pasta back from his famous visit to China. However, the story was entirely concocted by a writer for the American Macaroni Journal, promoting pasta to home cooks across the USA.

Tomatoes were introduced to Italy in the 16th century and became a big part of Italian cuisine by the 17th century, but it was not until the 18th century that tomato sauce recipes were being documented. The first written record of pasta being served with a tomato sauce was in a 1790 cookbook. Before tomato sauce was introduced, pasta was eaten with the fingers. The addition of a liquid sauce required utensils, the original motivation for the fork and spoon.

When I’m not making a tomato-based sauce for my pasta, my go-to favourite is Alfredo: a simple mixture of butter, garlic, cream and egg yolk, well seasoned. It’s remarkably easy to make and hard to mess up, so there’s no excuse for using a store-bought prepared sauce. Then its just a question of choosing the appropriate pasta. For a change I decide to integrate green veggies and protein in my dish. One night I make penne and add some left over baked salmon. A few days later I make the dish again with rotini which I pair with some lightly poached chicken breast.

They were both delicious, comforting, easy to make and took less than half an hour from start to finish. As always, the portions are for four servings.

PENNE ALFREDO WITH GREEN VEGGIES

Shopping list

  • 2 cups dried penne
  • 2 TBSP butter
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ cups whipping (35 per cent) or heavy cream
  • 1 egg, yolk only
  • 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
  • Pepper and salt
  • 1 cup asparagus, cut into 1 in pieces
  • ½ cup frozen green peas
  • 6 spring onions, peeled and chopped
  • Salmon, cooked and cut into bite sized pieces (Optional)

Garnish

  • Parsley, chopped

Preparation and cooking

  1. Bring 6 quarts generously salted water to a boil.
  2. While the water heats, melt the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Sautée the garlic lightly, about 2 mins. Remove from the heat.
  3. Separate the egg yolk into a bowl, discarding the white, and whisk in the cream until blended. Pour this mixture into the garlic butter and blend further. Reduce heat to low and keep the sauce warm. Do not let it boil.
  4. Prepare the vegetables: wash and chop the asparagus into 1 in segments, keeping the tips whole and breaking off the base and discarding; defrost the peas. Steam the veggies until tender, no more than 4-6 mins. Keep warm.
  5. Peel off the outer layer of the spring onions, chop finely, discarding any tough green tops and roots. Set aside. OPTION: If you have some left-over salmon, previously baked or poached, this is an excellent dish to use it up. Cut the cold salmon into bite sized pieces and set aside.
  6. Meanwhile, cook the pasta, partially covered, until al dente, about 6 mins. Drain in a colander, being careful to reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water.
  7. Pour the hot pasta into the cream mixture and toss to coat, still over low heat. Add the grated cheese and keep tossing gently until cream is mostly absorbed. If the sauce gets too thick, add a little pasta water.
  8. Add spring onions and stir in for a delicious crunch. Add warm peas and stir in. Stir in salmon pieces gently trying not to break them up. Garnish with warm asparagus pieces and chopped parsley.
  9. Season with salt and pepper and serve at once in warm bowls.

ROTINI ALFREDO WITH CHICKEN

Shopping list

  • As above, substitute penne and salmon for
  • 2 cups dried rotini tre colorati
  • 1 carton vegetable or chicken broth
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts

Preparation and cooking

  1. Wash the chicken breasts and cut into bite sized pieces. Gently poach in broth to cover for 10 mins. If there’s not enough broth to cover the chicken pieces, top up with water. Drain and set aside to cool.
  2. Make the sauce and pasta as above.
  3. Assemble as above.
  4. Serve as above.
Featured image: (l to r) fusilli bucati corti, garganelli all’uovo, rotini & penne rigate
(c) 2021 Nigel Napier-Andrews

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This is Nigel’s 306th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, well priced at $9.99 or £9.99.

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