Pasta: Artisanal vs Industrial
Take a closer look at a pack of quality dried Italian pasta. The main ingredient, semola di grano duro , is often assumed to be what is termed semolina in English. Not quite.
Granular, straw-coloured semola is the principal product from milling durum wheat (Triticum durum ), the hardest wheat variety. The English word semolina refers to the Italian semolina, made by re-milling semola to a fine grain.
Grano duro literally means hard wheat. Wheat "hardness" is a function of protein content. The endosperm of durum wheat is made up largely of protein with very little free starch, resulting in a very strong gluten when it is mixed with water. The resultant pasta holds up better in cooking, retaining its elasticity and developing a lovely wheat fragrance.
The Joys of Dried Pasta
Italian law requires that dried pastas be made from semola . Not all durum is acceptable; some varieties are considered too soft. Italy's durum wheat also has double the carotenoid content of most hard wheats, giving its pastas that special buff colour, even without eggs. Italian regulations also dictate that where dried pasta includes eggs, there must be a minimum of 4 hens' eggs for every 200 kg of semola. As such, Italian dried pastas contain anywhere between 11% to 20% protein.
Due to the large size of the granules, pasta dough made with semola requires seriously heavy kneading, but it gives an al dente bite that cannot be matched by softer flours. It is used mainly in dried commercial pasta where machines do the grunt work - softer flours are used for fresh, home-made pasta. Hence the preference for dried over fresh pasta in Italy. However, the southern Italians, who prefer their pasta verdi (a much firmer degree of al dente which some might regard as verging on undercooked), use semola in their homemade pastas despite the hard labour involved. First-time users are advised to start by replacing between 25-50 per cent of the flour with semola .
What's the difference between artisanal and industrial dried pasta?
There is a huge difference between artisanal (or traditional) and industrial dried pasta. Artisanal pastas are extruded through bronze rollers. This results in a rough surface finish on the pastas, providing better sauce and oil adhesion qualities.
Another key difference is that under the traditional method of production, the pasta is slowly air-dried over several days as opposed to minutes in industrial production methods. This ensures that the pasta is not "cooked" during the drying process. It takes an artisanal producer a year to make what the industrial process makes in a day!
The rate of absorption of water by traditional pastas on cooking is higher, resulting in a higher end yield per kilo. Artisanal pastas have a higher tolerance to mishandling such as over-cooking, a vital attribute in the commercial kitchen.
Artisanal pasta also has a distinctive delicate flavour. My favourite brands are Martelli and Rustichella. They are the ultimate fast food. Here is the base recipe for some of my favourite pasta meals:
- Bring a pot of water to rapid boil. Add salt and put the pasta in to cook. Cooking times will vary according to the pasta variety eg spaghetti has a shorter cooking time than spaghettini. In general it only takes anywhere between 6 - 8 minutes for al dente.
- Whilst the pasta is cooking, gently sauté finely minced garlic with a generous amount of olive oil over low heat. Snip some dried chillies in if you want a bit of heat.
- Add finely chopped Tuscan black cabbage (cavolo nero ) or double-peeled broad beans to the pan. Toss in an anchovy or two if you wish. Add a tablespoon or two of the pasta cooking water to the pan.
- When the pasta is almost cooked, add it to the pan along with a bit more water. The starch in the cooking water serves to "thicken" the sauce. Stir to combine well. Check seasonings, a few grinds of black pepper and a hearty, healthy dinner is ready!
Other Uses of Semola
In Sardinian cuisine, which is completely unlike the Tuscan and northern Italian cuisines, semola is used not only for pasta but also for breads, thick soups and to coat vegetables or seafood before frying.
Semola is superior to breadcrumb or egg-flour coatings for fried foods as it does not absorb the oil. It produces a perfectly crisp dry crust and the deep fried foods remain perfectly crisp even after standing for some time. Apart from being an excellent coating for pan-fried meats and deep-fried seafood, this simple treatment adds magic to vegetables, transforming good-for-you food into more-ish delights. Just lightly coat mushrooms, eggplant slices, fennel bulbs or zucchini batons in semola and deep-fry in very hot oil. Eggplant and zucchini benefit from being lightly salted, rinsed and drained before coating and deep-frying.
Sardinian pasta: Fregola & Fregolone
Sardinians have several distinctive pastas. One is fregola . This pasta which looks like coarse sand is made in a terracotta basin called scivedda . Semola is turned into peppercorn-size balls by being sprinkled with liquid (water, or egg yolk and water) as the scivedda is rotated by hand. Saffron is often added, and the resultant pasta is then dried. There is a larger pebble-sized version called fregolone .
Fregola and the larger sized fregolone are like coucous but with a wonderful nutty texture. Both are eaten simply with sugo and grated cheese or added to soups, stews or thick-sauced dishes of meat, seafood or vegetables. They are often cooked only for as long as it takes the liquid to return to the boil (2-3 minutes) and served immediately. Initially very nutty, they soften as the granules absorb the sauce while you are eating. Their liquid absorption capacity is high, so ensure you have a reasonably generous quantity of sauce to begin with.
Semola , fregola and fregolone are available at specialty Italian foodstores.
In the following recipe, adapted from Itala Testa's Cucina di Sardegna [Editrice Altair ], you can use fregola or fregolone : the only difference is in cooking times. The pasta is served softened rather than nutty.
Recipe: SARDINIAN LAMB PILAU
(Serves 4 - 6 persons)
About 100 ml olive oil
1.2 kg lamb, preferably shoulder
1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Generous pinch salt or to taste
1 cup Vermentino or other dry white wine
4 cups hot lamb or veal stock
500 g fregola or fregolone
- Cut the lamb into small cubes.
- Heat olive oil in a large heavy casserole. Add lamb cubes and fry until well-browned.
- Add rosemary, bay leaves, garlic and salt and fry for a few minutes, stirring well to combine.
- Add wine and bring to the boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered,for about an hour or until lamb is tender.
- Half-an-hour before serving, add stock to the stew and bring to the boil. Add fregolone or fregola . Stir well, cover tightly and cook in a preheated 180ºC oven for no more than 15 minutes for fregolone or 10 minutes for fregola .
- Serve immediately with a simple green salad or a wild rocket salad with pear and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano.