Oct. 25 is World Pasta Day.
The calendar is crammed with all sorts of dubious food holidays. Sept. 9 is Wienerschnitzel Day. April 20 is Lima Bean Respect Day. March 28 is Something on a Stick Day. TV Dinner Day falls on Sept. 10.
Most of these holidays are the result of some promotional push. We suspect that Prune Breakfast Month (January, in case you're wondering) was created by a prune marketing board rather than by a spontaneous uprising of grassroots prune lovers. But World Pasta Day, which started in Rome in 1995, feels like a genuinely popular event. After all, who doesn't love pasta?
I'm sure many home cooks will be boiling up some noodles tomorrow, breaking out the Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even raising a glass of prosecco in support of a kitchen staple that has done so much for North American dinner tables.
In the 1996 film Big Night, two immigrant brothers struggle to bring authentic Italian cooking to 1950s New Jersey. Italian food is still considered exotic, potentially packed with dangerous garlic. While the temperamental chef, Primo, dreams of the Mediterranean feasts of his home shores, his unadventurous customers only want one thing -- vast oval platters of spaghetti and meatballs with gloppy, bright-red tomato sauce, then considered the sum total of Italian cuisine.
We've learned a lot about pasta since then (not to mention the whole breadth of Italian cooking beyond the pasta course). Now we know that pasta can be anything from humble mac 'n' cheese to extravagant lobster ravioli. It can be as robust as rigatoni with sausage and peppers or as delicate as angel hair pasta with lemon and asparagus.
Pasta is a go-to weekday option in many kitchens because it's fast, flexible and economical. It's easy to make good pasta, though a few simple steps help make it even better.
When cooking pasta, start with cold water, and lots of it. Pasta needs room to move. Don't be stingy with the salt -- Canadian chef Michael Smith claims the water should taste like the sea -- but add only after the water starts boiling.
Aim for the simultaneous climax of sauce and pasta whenever possible, but if there's a difference in time, it's better to make the sauce wait for the pasta than the pasta wait for the sauce. Pasta should be cooked at a rolling boil until al dente -- fully cooked but still firm, with just a slight, chewy bite -- then drained quickly and sauced immediately. For smaller recipes, you can sometimes use a deep sauté pan for the sauce and toss the drained pasta right in. For larger recipes, place pasta and sauce in a big heated bowl, toss gently and serve family style.
And here's a tip: Take out some pasta cooking water near the end of the cooking time and keep it to one side. Adding a little of this hot, starchy water can help bind the pasta and sauce. It's also a good top-up if a dish is too dry. Finish the dish with a little butter or olive oil, some salt and pepper, maybe a scattering of fresh herbs, and sometimes (but not always -- it really depends on the sauce) freshly grated Parmesan.
To celebrate World Pasta Day, here's a recipe for penne with butternut squash, sage and bresaola. And with apologies to Primo, we also include a really good recipe for spaghetti and meatballs. It's not really authentic -- Italians often make meatballs and tomato sauce for a second course, but it was only the Americanized version that combined meatballs with spaghetti for a hearty main course. But with these tasty homemade meatballs and a quick, fresh sauce, rich with wine and Roma tomatoes, even Primo might come around. Both recipes are adapted from Williams-Sonoma Pasta (Simon & Schuster, $21.95).
Penne with butternut squash, sage and bresaola
45 ml (3 tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
5 shallots, minced
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into small dice
Pinch ground allspice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
175 ml (3/4 cup) chicken stock
Splash balsamic vinegar
500 g (1 lb) penne
8 fresh sage leaves, cut into narrow strips
125 g (1/4 lb) thinly sliced bresaola or prosciutto, cut into narrow strips
125 g (about 1 cup) grated grana padano or Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven or flameproof casserole dish over medium heat, warm the 45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil. Add the shallots and cook until softened, 3-4 minutes. Add the squash and allspice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add the stock, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the squash is fork tender, about 8 minutes. (Don't stir the squash while cooking, or it will break down into a puree. You want to keep the pieces whole.) Turn off the heat and add the balsamic vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Generously salt the boiling water, add the pasta, and cook until al dente, 10-12 minutes.
Drain the pasta and put in a warmed large, shallow bowl. Pour on the squash mixture. Add the sage, bresaola, and a drizzle of olive oil and toss gently. Sprinkle with some of the cheese and serve immediately. Pass the remaining cheese at the table.
Makes 4 main-course or 6 first-course servings.
Tester's notes: This easy dish has a great mingling of flavours and textures. Bresaola is a salt-cured, air-dried beef, available at Italian groceries, but prosciutto works well, too. I used speck, a kind of smoked prosciutto. For a vegetarian option, try using vegetable broth and toasted nuts in place of the meat.
Spaghetti with meatballs
60 ml (1/4 cup) coarse fresh bread crumbs
60 ml (1/4 cup) milk
250 g (1/2 lb) pork sausage, casings removed
375 g (3/4 lb) ground beef
125 ml (1/2 cup) ricotta cheese
185 g (about 1 1/2 cups) grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large shallot, minced
Pinch each nutmeg and cloves
Fresh marjoram leaves, chopped, plus whole sprigs for garnish
3 cloves garlic, divided
Salt and pepper
Olive oil, as needed
1 yellow onion, diced
60 ml (1/4 cup) dry white wine
1 large can (35 oz/1.1 kg) plus 1 small can (12 oz/375 g) plum tomatoes
60 ml (1/4 cup) chicken stock
1 bay leaf
500 g (1 lb) spaghetti
To make the meatballs, in a large bowl, combine the bread crumbs and milk and mix well. Add the sausage, beef, egg, ricotta, one-third of the Parmesan, shallot, spices, a good sprinkling of marjoram, and 1 garlic clove, minced. Mix briefly with your hands just until the ingredients are well distributed. Season well with salt and pepper. Form the mixture into small balls 1.2-2.5 cm (1/2 - 1 inch) in diameter. In a large frying pan over medium heat, pour in the olive oil to a depth of 6 mm (1/4 inch). When it is hot, add the meatballs (in batches, if necessary) and brown well on all sides. Transfer to a tray lined with paper towels to drain.
Discard the oil in the frying pan and wipe out any burned bits. In the pan over medium heat, warm 45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil and sauté the onion until soft and lightly golden, about 4 minutes. Slice and add the remaining 2 garlic cloves and saute about 1 minute longer. Add the wine and let simmer until it is almost completely evaporated. Chop the tomatoes and add them along with their juice. Then add the stock and bay leaf and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add the meatballs, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer, uncovered, until the meatballs are cooked through, 5-8 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Generously salt the boiling water, add the pasta, and cook until al dente, 7-9 minutes. Drain the pasta and put it in a warmed large, shallow bowl. Add a sprinkling of chopped marjoram to the sauce and pour it over the pasta. Drizzle the pasta with olive oil and toss gently. Garnish with marjoram sprigs and serve immediately. Pass the remaining Parmesan at the table.
Makes 4 main-course servings.
Tester's notes: About a hundred times better than frozen meatballs and canned sauce, this version of spag and meatballs is a classic, not a cliché. If you can't find fresh marjoram (tricky), you can use its slightly louder cousin, oregano.