Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pasta alla Checca

The Husband always knows when I decide that summer is just around the corner because for starters I start painting my toes and wearing sandals, but mainly because we start eating Pasta alla Checca at least three times a week. It is literally my favorite pasta in the world, it’s easy to make, it’s fast, and if the ingredients are good quality then the dish is to die for. There are many variants of this pasta, all of which are good, I’m going to share my favorite, and then you can take it from there and create your perfect version of Pasta alla Checca, because it’s one of those summer comfort foods that has to fit like your favorite pair of Manolo’s, the ones that you can walk for miles in they’re so comfortable, and yet you still look amazing.
What you need:
Well, pasta of course. I’m partial to De Cecco, which is a high quality Italian brand that you can find pretty easily in most big cities worldwide, but your favorite brand will work perfectly too! You need “short” pasta for this dish, so no spaghetti or other long pastas. I like to use fusilli (corkscrew shaped pasta), but my Mom prefers farfalle (bow shaped pasta), if you experiment a little you’ll find the perfect pasta shape for you, the one that absorbs the right amount of sauce, and that allows you to spear all the main ingredients so you can make the “perfect mouthful”.
Tomatoes, which is why I only make it in the summer, with those lovely straight from the plant tomatoes in my vegetable garden.
Fresh Mozzarella, ideally buffalo mozzarella, but regular mozzarella is fine too as long as it’s fresh. I realize this is trickier for people outside of Italy cause it’s hard to find and expensive when you do, but it really, really needs to be fresh. So do NOT, under any circumstances, substitute with other types of mozzarella (mozzarella cheese sticks are totally NOT ok) I really can’t stress this enough. If you can’t find fresh mozzarella you’re going to have to go without cheese in the dish (it’s still very, very good) and if you really can’t give up the cheese entirely then substitute with something completely different, like Feta cheese. (If my Mom actually read my blog she would have keeled over from a heart attack after that suggestion.)
Basil, just a few fresh leaves, if you can, it makes the dish positively heavenly.
Salt and oil.

And then you have a whole slew of options, just a few would be:  anchovy paste, oregano, parmesan cheese and garlic.

This is what you do:
1.       Put a large pan full of water to boil with about a tablespoon of salt every 1.5 to 2 litres – or if you’re like me and don’t feel like actually measuring anything dump in a handful of salt and then taste the water, if you can taste the salt, but it doesn’t feel like you got a mouthful of water from the Dead Sea then you’re good to go, otherwise keep adding salt (little by little!).
2.       Cut up the tomatoes – you want them to be just a little smaller than the pasta so that when you put them in your mouth there’s a balance between pasta and tomato where neither overwhelms the other. And put them directly in your serving dish. Oh, and the ratio of tomato (piece) to pasta is 1 – 1,5. So you want there to be more pasta than tomato in the finished product, but not a lot more.
3.       Dress the tomatoes with some salt and oil and I like to put in a slightly squished whole, clean clove of garlic, I like the aroma but it can’t be overwhelming. My Mom on the other hand, hates garlic in her Checca but she adds about a spoonful of anchovy paste to the tomatoes, oil and salt. Try them both or mix ‘em up and let me know what you prefer!

4.       At this point your water should be boiling and you should have the amount of salt sorted out so dump in the pasta. (Dieticians say 80grams/person is the correct amount of pasta as a main course, if you’re American this’ll look like maybe an appetizer, so I suggest you go with at least 100gr per person, or more realistically 120gr – it’s worth it. But don’t get too greedy and go over 150gr/person, or, you know, you won’t have room for  dessert!)
5.       While your pasta cooks (and, for the love of all that is holy, check the cooking time on the package you’ve GOT TO drain it al dente.) cut up the mozzarella (same rule as per the tomatoes), and coarsely chop some basil leaves (or leave them whole, whatever).
6.       Hold the mozzarella, don’t mix it with the tomatoes yet! But do go ahead and put the basil leaves with the tomatoes (if you don’t have fresh basil, use dried oregano, not dried or frozen basil!)
7.       Drain the pasta – all together now – AL DENTE and dump it over the tomatoes and mix.

this photo adds absolutely nothing to the description, but I thought the steam effect on the camera was kinda cool

8.       NOW put in the mozzarella and mix some more. Why? Because if you put the mozzarella and cover it with boiling hot pasta your mozzarella will get stringy or hardened whereas if you wait just one beat it’ll get warm from the hot pasta but it’ll stay intact in all its chewy goodness.
9.       Fish out the clove of garlic lest your husband accidently bite into it and then goes on to complain about it for three hours.

Voilà, Pasta alla Checca

10.   Sometimes I like it with parmesan cheese on top, sometimes I just want to taste tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Whatever works for you!


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