Feature

Pasta the right way: A lesson from the Italians

In an Italian kitchen, achieving pasta perfection is a two-step process.

Americans love pasta, but most of us cook it all wrong, said Andrew Feinberg and Francine Stephens in Franny’s Simple Seasonal Italian (Artisan). In a typical American home, “the first time the pasta meets the sauce is when you twirl it all together with a fork. There is no real unity of flavors—and the noodles are usually overcooked and limp.”

We ate pasta prepared this way for years—until we discovered that Italians do it differently. In an Italian kitchen, achieving pasta perfection is a two-step process. First, the pasta is cooked in generously salted boiling water until it’s 2 minutes shy of al dente. Next, it’s transferred to a sauce that’s just come together and is simmering on the next burner in a wide skillet. Finishing the noodles in the sauce “makes for a deeper-tasting dish in which all the ingredients are wedded into a well-balanced whole.” In the most memorable pasta dishes, “all of the elements are perfectly calibrated—the shape of the noodles and the consistency of the sauce, the type and amount of cheese, the chili heat or lack thereof.”

In the dish below, “the pungency of chili flakes, mint, and fennel seeds” offers a nice contrast to the mild saline flavor of swordfish, and the firm chunks of fish go nicely with paccheri, a tube-shaped pasta whose name is Italian for “slap in the mouth.”

Recipe of the week

Pasta with swordfish, olives, capers, and mint

  • 1½ lbs skinless swordfish steaks, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 3 tbsp salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed, or drained, brined capers
  • ¼ cup Nocellara or Cerignola olives, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 4 tsp chopped garlic
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds, preferably Sicilian
  • 1 tsp chili flakes
  • 1 lb paccheri or other tube-shaped pasta
  • ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 3 tbsp chopped mint
  • Fresh lemon juice

Season fish with salt and pepper. In a 12- to 14-inch skillet, warm ¼ cup olive oil over high heat. Add fish (in batches if necessary, to avoid overcrowding). Cook without moving, until browned on one side, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a platter.

In the same skillet, warm remaining ¼ cup oil over medium-high heat. Add capers and fry until they start to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Add olives, garlic, fennel seeds, and chili flakes and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in 2 tbsp water. Remove from heat.

In a large pot of well-salted boiling water, cook pasta according to package instructions until 2 minutes shy of al dente; drain.

Toss pasta and swordfish with caper mixture. Cook over medium heat until pasta is al dente, 1 to 2 minutes, adding more water if sauce seems dry. Stir in parsley and mint; season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Divide among plates and drizzle with oil. Serves 4 to 6.

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