Part 2 Cooking for my Childhood Friends
“As I dropped the pasta in the pot of boiling water I called out to my friends, “How do you want the pasta cooked?” I was wincing waiting for the answer. They all matter-of-factly answered together, “al dente!” My heart leaped for joy as I realized they have come a long way from when I first met them 50 years ago!
Growing up in Hyde Park so many years ago, I was always taken aback whenever pasta was served. I am not talking the way it was served in the school cafeteria. They did have a lot of children to serve! But I could never bring myself to eat the school cafeteria pasta. Depending on whom the lunch lady was, the spaghetti varied between, large worm- like spaghetti swirling on my plate with runny sauce or it was scooped out with an ice cream scoop.
Even the neighborhood deli always had cooked pasta with sauce in their display case. I often rode my bike to the corner store with my friends to get candy. I would find myself looking on with curiosity when the deli man scooped up cold pasta mixed with sauce into containers. Watching him squish down the pasta to make room for more, I shuddered as the soft pasta flattened into a pudding like consistency. I just couldn’t understand why someone would want to eat that mush!
One day I had an opportunity to watch neighbor-hood mom cook pasta and I began to understand this phenomenon. When we made pasta at home it was always well attended to. Meaning when you dropped the pasta in the boiling water my mom stood by stirring and checking when the pasta was done. Just when my mom thought it was ready she would take it out blow on it and would hand it to me. I had the privilege to tell her when it was “al dente”. “Al dente” was when it was just short of being fully cooked through, firm but not soft. The pasta was then immediately drained and plated into individual plates which was served right away. We actually had an assembly line to the table to speed up the process.
When my neighbor cooked pasta, it was left in the pot boiling while she attended to other cooking. The pasta boiled and boiled. After the water was good and starchy she drained the soft limp pasta. But that wasn’t enough! She then washed the gooey pasta to make sure all the goop was rinsed away. It was then put in a large bowl with sauce. It sat while everyone slowly came to the table. Maybe that’s why cooked pasta was offered at the deli. This mush pasta took all day to make!
Years ago American pasta was not made from durum wheat. It was made from the same flour they used for soft bread. So technically it was hard to make pasta “al dente”. Besides needing a quick technique to serve pasta one also needed imported pasta from Italy made from durum wheat. Italian pasta was so much more expensive back then and not accessible to everyone.
America has come a long way. We have so many more options now and most pasta is made from durum wheat. I have to believe that my Italian family had a large part in the way pasta is served today. Well at least in Hyde Park!”
See our Pesto Sauce recipe.