There are certain topics that will always ignite conversation in my classes and one of them is, you may have guessed it from the content of my posts, food. It’s not a stereotype: food is a more integral part of life in Italy than in any other place I’ve ever lived. So the “secrets from the world’s top kitchens” in Global’s unit on food in the pre-intermediate book were guaranteed to be cause of debate, especially when it came to discussing how to cook pasta.
There is not an Italian I know who doesn’t think non-Italians could learn a thing or two about how to cook the national dish. The catalyst for the Pasta Lecture this time around was the “secret” that in order to find out if pasta is ready, you should throw a piece of pasta against the fridge and see if it sticks. If it does, it’s done. If you could only have seen the look of horror on their faces–you might as well have said to throw their first-born child. So, the conclusion (after everyone presented their views on how “al dente” pasta should be) is that you should not throw your pasta, but simply take the time written on the packet with a grain of salt. Italian praxis is to subtract a couple of minutes and then start tasting it to see how far along it is. Keep tasting it every 30-45 seconds until it’s right for you. Seeing as most Italians have at least one bowl of pasta a day, you can imagine how sensitive their teeth become to judging how far along the pasta is!
Global’s food tips also brought out a discussion of a never-ending cause of ire in Bologna: Spaghetti alla Bolognese. You’re probably asking yourself, what could be so contentious about that? Well, the problem, according to (not only) my students, is that Bolognese sauce, should never go on spaghetti, but on tagliatelle, a long thin egg pasta that is similar in shape to fettucine famous in Bologna. According to local lore, when you roll out the pasta it should be so thin that you can see San Luca, the beautiful basilica on one of the hills overlooking the city, through it. But they’ll be happy even if you use the store bought stuff: just please, no spaghetti. And then for the sauce itself, known in Bologna as ragù: each of my students has a variant, with more or less tomato, sausage, pancetta and white wine or red wine. So to keep everybody happy I’ve settled on this recipe that’s a modernized version of the one deposited in Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce in 1982 as “the authentic ragù”:
For 4 people:
• 300 g ground beef, preferably not too lean
• 150 g ground pancetta (For a leaner version, substitute ground pork)
• 1 carrot (about 50 g)
• 1 celery stalk (about 50 g)
• 1 onion (about 50 g)
• ½ c Dry Red Wine (for example, a dry Sangiovese)
• meat broth (to taste)
• 5 tablespoons of tomato concentrate
• Salt and pepper to taste
Chop very finely the vegetables and sauté them together with the pancetta until the onion is transparent and the veggies soft. Add the ground meat and sauté until cooked through and the most of the liquid from the meat has evaporated. Add the wine and let the alcohol burn off. Add a bit of meat broth and the tomato concentrate and mix. Leave it to cook on a low flame for an hour and a half. If it starts to dry out, add some broth or full fat milk. The longer you leave it to cook, the richer the flavor becomes! Serve mixed into the tagliatelle (not on top) with fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Note: As in all Italian recipes, feel free to adjust to taste. Every Bolognese grandmother has her own recipe. I love red wine so I tend to add liberal amounts of it to my recipe and I’ll add more tomato and maybe even some tomato puree if I’m in the mood or want a more summery version. Many of my students swear by ground sausage. There is no right or wrong, just what tastes good to you!