Rachel Roddy is very aware that pasta is a deliciously sprawling, emotionally rich, historical labyrinth of a topic. Trying to distil that into a selection of words on a page is not to be taken lightly.
“I never dreamed I’d write a book about pasta, because, I mean, that would be crazy,” says the food writer, incredulous on the phone from Rome where she has lived since 2008. And yet, she has. Her new yolk-yellow cookbook, An A-Z Of Pasta, comprises 50 stories about 50 pasta shapes – a mere fraction of the 1,300 shapes identified by one of Roddy’s inspirations, Oretta Zanini de Vita, author of the Encyclopedia Of Pasta. She calls the myriad shapes “domestic works of art” in the book. “They are, aren’t they?” she says, slightly bashfully.
Fifty shapes is still a gargantuan project when you consider that chronicling pasta is, in a sense, a chronicling of Italy. “Every day, I would panic at the immensity of this task,” recalls Roddy. “And then every day, I would remember that I was only doing a little jigsaw of the shapes, and that it was alright.”
She traces the ancient importance of macaroni and vermicelli, and of course includes the “greatest hits”, the four corners of her jigsaw: penne, spaghetti, tagliatelle, fusilli. When it comes to her favourite pasta shapes, understandably, she has a lot – with rigatoni (the tubes) sidling slightly ahead of the pack.
If she could only eat one pasta dish every single day forever more though, after much deliberation, the British-born columnist says it’d be a tangle of seafood pasta (see the capelli d’angelo with prawns and lemon recipe below). Although pasta with boiled-until-tender veg that’s then “squished around a pan” with oil and chilli, or anchovies, maybe cheese, maybe a handful of capers, comes a very close second. “We eat that all the time,” she says – broccoli being the usual culprit, or turnip tops.
Roddy doesn’t wage war on any particular pasta shapes though. She has come to appreciate the very thin strands of capelli d’angelo or tagliolini and admits to preferring the bigger versions of fusilli and penne – fusilloni and pennoni – to the classic small versions, which, served sauce-less, have blighted many a childhood.
She does, however, very much understand the suspicion and mistrust around farfalle – the bows that never cook evenly, their hard core seemingly resistant to boiling water. Hence why she introduces them in the book wittily with an agony uncle letter (with her partner Vincenzo as agony uncle). Following much research and investigating into classic agony aunt letters and columns, she hilariously found “you could literally replace any sexual problem with a pasta shape every single time!”
“I mean, they got filthy by the end of it,” she says with a laugh, noting her publisher had to stop her from getting carried away and writing the whole book in agony letter form.
While there are many beautiful photos and pasta shape doodles in An A-Z Of Pasta, there are also recipes that don’t feature an accompanying image at all. “I think some books have so many images, [that] we stop reading. That’s why I like cookery books without pictures,” says Roddy. “Because you have to be transported by the words and you paint your own picture, and then you enter a different realm, don’t you?”
Roddy’s aim, also, is to give us meaningful, truly helpful advice, not just step-by-step instructions. “You want someone to say to you: ‘Look, really dice the tomato small, be really generous with the oil, plenty of salt and then really toss it, you just add a tiny bit of pasta cooking water so it’s a bit swishy’ – those bits of advice where you think: ‘Ahh, OK’,” she explains.
That playful approach, finding the joy and taking pasta seriously and reverently, but not too seriously and reverently, underpins Roddy’s work. As such, when it comes to fresh versus dried, she is not dogmatic. Besides, “all pasta starts off fresh”.
She does like making her own every now and then, tortellini for instance, and occasionally ravioli, but is in no way “a pasta-making fanatic”. Instead, like most of us, she tends to buy it ready-made. Texturally speaking, she admits that if “you pay a pound more [than usual] for a packet, you just get something completely different” – and arguably better – but she applies no pressure to do so. There’s “no differentiating between the fancy handmade shapes and the dried ones, because they’re all good”.
For Roddy, cooking is like lots of “little acts of creation. And that isn’t to say that a lot of the time, I don’t cook when I’m furious or tired or don’t want to cook – and also, I’m very aware it’s my job.
“Despite that, I do find cooking a creative process every day. I like that it can be beautiful and ugly and it’s everything, isn’t it? It’s life, really, cooking. And I mean that whether you’re eating a bag of Monster Munch or a plate of cappellacci.”
Take making lasagne, which Roddy likens to “a summer storm” hitting her kitchen. “I feel like a tornado, whatever I touch [when I’m cooking],” she says. “So you can imagine me with lasagne. But then, isn’t it the most satisfying thing?”
Although, she adds: “I torture myself with lasagne. I always make it slightly too late in the day.”
What she doesn’t torture herself with is olive oil. There’s no eking out a bottle or scrimping. Nice olive oil is in fact her biggest – and not in the least begrudged – kitchen expense. For a good extra virgin olive oil (she recommends looking for Greek olive oil in British supermarkets, followed by Palestinian and Cypriot), “you should be paying £12-£14 pounds a litre,” she says, “which feels a lot. I mean, I can say it used to feel extortionate for me.” But for an ingredient that can massively upgrade your dinner, “you need to shift the price range a bit”.
What she really hopes her jigsaw of pasta offers, is for people to “have little eureka moments with very straightforward recipes. If people have two or three favourites that they make again and again and make their own, I will be the happiest food writer ever.
“I hope it’s a useful book,” she continues. “Because when I have a plate of pasta in front of me, for that minute, everything’s all right with the world.”
“This is my harlequin pasta, another recipe from the Italian food writer Rita Pane that has become a summer favourite, especially if we are a big group.
“The beauty is that the heat of the pasta and vegetables melts and softens the edges of the mozzarella and parmesan, which unites everything. You can roast the vegetables but frying is best. You could do this in advance, but they will need warming through in the oven before you mix everything together. Use loads of basil – the scent should fill your nose and the room.”
Makes: 6 servings
Olive or vegetable oil, for frying
1 large aubergine, diced into 1cm cubes
1 red pepper, diced into 1cm cubes
2 courgettes, diced into 1cm cubes
2 large ripe tomatoes
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
600g mezze maniche, penne, fusilli or rigatoni
100g parmesan, grated
200g mozzarella, diced
A big sprig of fresh basil leaves, ripped
1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil for the pasta.
2. Pour enough oil into a deep, medium-sized frying pan for it to come 2.5cm up the sides and heat until hot. Working in batches, fry the diced vegetables in the oil until soft and golden, then blot on a kitchen towel, season with salt and keep warm. Tip the oil from the pan.
3. Plunge the tomatoes into the almost boiling water for a minute, then lift them out with a slotted spoon and refresh under cold water, at which point the skins should slip off. Roughly chop the tomatoes.
4. Put the frying pan back on the heat with four tablespoons of new oil and the garlic. Once the garlic is fragrant, add the chopped tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook until soft and saucey – about 10 minutes.
5. Once the water is boiling, add salt, stir, then add the pasta and cook until al dente. Once the pasta is ready, drain, tip into the tomato pan and toss.
6. Tip the pasta and sauce into a large bowl, add the fried vegetables, parmesan, mozzarella and ripped basil, toss thoroughly and serve.
Fresh capelli d’angelo with prawns and lemon
“As far back as the 16th century, in a town called Campofilone in Le Marche, maccheroncini – remember that for centuries the word maccheroni was the generic term for all pasta – was described as so thin, it was like angel hair.
“Nowadays, Maccheroncini di Campofilione is protected by an Indicazione Geografica Protetta or IGP (PDO – Protected Designation of Origin in English), which defines how it’s made and in which specific area geographically.
“This recipe is inspired by a dish served at an elegant fish restaurant called Chalet Galileo, whose windows open onto an almost white beach in Civitanova in the region of Le Marche. Prawns cooked swiftly in olive oil, with white wine and scented with lemon zest, are netted for the second time in fresh egg pasta. Cooking times for the prawns and the pasta are brief, so the dish comes together incredibly quickly. A bright, swift tangle of a supper.”
Makes: 4 servings
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and sliced
A pinch of red chilli flakes
400g small prawns, peeled
120ml dry white wine
400g fresh egg pasta, cut to approx 1mm thick, alternatively tagliolini or spaghettini
Zest of 1 lemon
1 heaped tsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil for the pasta.
2. In a large frying pan, warm the oil, garlic and chilli gently to infuse the oil. Add the prawns, stir, then raise the heat, add the wine and a pinch of salt and allow to bubble for three minutes while you cook the pasta – which will only take a minute or so.
3. Drain the pasta, or lift directly into the prawn pan, add the lemon zest and parsley, then toss for the last time, and serve.
Cavatelli with sausage, mint and tomato
A swift, simple and satisfying mid-week pasta dish that you’ll end up cooking on repeat.
Makes: 4 servings
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
4 tbsp olive oil
400g sausage meat, crumbled
150ml white wine
400g ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
A sprig of fresh mint
450g fresh or 400g dried cavatelli, orecchiette, fusilli or casarecce
Grated pecorino and red chilli flakes, to serve
1. In a capacious pot over a medium-low heat, fry the crushed garlic in the olive oil. Add the crumbled sausage meat and stir until all pinkness has gone.
2. Pour in the wine and raise the heat. When the wine has evaporated, add the diced tomatoes and cook for another five to 10 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Finally, add the mint leaves and salt to taste.
3. Cook and drain the cavatelli, put them into the pot with the sauce and let them simmer for a few minutes, stirring and adding some of the cooking water if needed. Serve, passing round grated pecorino and red chilli flakes for those who want them.
Recipes extracted from ‘An A-Z Of Pasta: Stories, Shapes, Sauces, Recipes’ by Rachel Roddy (Fig Tree, priced £25; photography by Jonathan Lovekin).