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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Please Don't Break the Pasta

“Every Time You Break The Pasta An Italian Cook Cries.”

Do you remember these famous “cause and effect” sayings: “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings” or “Every time a child says 'I don't believe in fairies' there is a little fairy somewhere that falls down dead”? Or that old standard, “step on a crack, break your mother's back”? Well, I've got a new one for you: “Every time you break the pasta an Italian cook cries.”

For some unfathomable reason, American cooks love to take a handful of innocent, inoffensive spaghetti and viciously snap it in half before throwing it into a pot of boiling water. Apparently they don't realize that under such torture spaghetti emits a high-pitched scream that can only be heard by Italians. You don't believe me? I was watching an episode of “Chopped” when some bozo thoughtlessly broke the spaghetti in half. Scott Conant and I both visibly winced and I said to my wife, “Scott's gonna call him on that one.” Sure enough, he did. And the pasta abuser wound up losing, too.

Folks, don't break the spaghetti. And don't ask me why you shouldn't break the spaghetti because I don't know why you shouldn't break the spaghetti. All I know is that you shouldn’t. It's an Italian thing. (Actually, I do know why. I'll get to it in a minute.)

I was at the home of a friend of a friend and I was in the kitchen as dinner was being prepared. I almost came out of my chair when I saw the cook grasp a bunch of spaghetti in both hands. Everybody must have thought I'd gone pazzo when I shouted, “DON'T!” as she was about to snap it half. The cook looked at me like I'd grown a third eye and said, “We always cook it that way.” That's when I also learned that they never salt the cooking water and that they add oil to it. I just left the kitchen, weeping.

Don't break the pasta. Some Italians believe it's bad luck. Most agree it's bad manners and any Italian cook will tell you it's bad technique. The Chinese believe long noodles represent long life. You wanna risk half your life?

In case you think I'm parlare dal mio culo, allow me to cite some examples: besides the aforementioned anti-breakage chef Scott Conant, Mario Batali has gone on record as saying that breaking pasta is an insult to all those nonne who spent decades perfecting their long, thin noodles, engineered to hold the sauce in just the right way. The late queen of the Italian kitchen Marcella Hazan, in her bestselling “The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” says, "Do not break up spaghetti or any other long pasta into smaller pieces." Another doyenne of the Italian kitchen, Lidia Bastianich, emphatically commands, “Do not break your pasta (noodle types like spaghetti, linguini, etc) before adding it to a pot of boiling water. It’s bad luck!” The folks at Real Simple unequivocally state, “Don't break pasta to fit it in the pot. Let the ends stick out until the submerged sections soften, about 1 minute. Then stir to bend the pasta and push it underwater.” Under the heading “Pasta Cooking Basics” the authorities at AllRecipes.com say, “let spaghetti and long strands soften for a minute before stirring. Don’t break pasta in half.” Food writer Dominic Armato lays out the “Ten Commandments of Dry Pasta” on his Skillet Doux website. Here's number VI – “Thou Salt Not Break The Pasta. I have absolutely no logical reason why. I just know you don't do it. You don't do it. It's a cardinal sin. If your pasta doesn't fit in your pot......well......get a bigger pot.” The Epicurean Table states, “never break long pasta to fit into the pan. Apply gentle pressure as the pasta softens and bend the strands. Wait a few moments and give a stir.”

Had enough, miscreant pasta breakers? Or shall I continue flagellating you with an unbroken wet noodle until you repent of your evil ways?

I know why a lot of people break pasta. The sad thing is they don't have to. It's a rookie cooking move. People who break pasta do so for two reasons: one, they think it fits better in the pot and two, they think it's easier to eat after it's cooked.

Addressing the second excuse first, let me be brutally honest: if you can't handle eating long pasta without breaking it or cutting it, may I respectfully suggest “SpaghettiOs?” C'mon! Only Italian children have their spaghetti broken or cut for them. And then only until they're about five years of age. After that they're expected to eat like adults, and adults never cut or break their long pasta. It is the ultimate breach of etiquette. That's why pseudo-Italian restaurants provide amateur eaters with those stupid big spoons. Even sitting there like an infant using a spoon to help you twirl the strands onto your fork is preferable to cutting it up. Breaking or cutting long pasta just isn't done, either before or after cooking.

And as far as fitting the pot goes, just learn how to cook. Okay, I get it. An average strand of spaghetti is just a smidge over ten inches long. The interior diameter of an average five-quart pot measures just under ten inches. Something's gotta give, right? So you bust up the spaghetti into five-inch pieces, right? So that they fit into the pot, right? WRONG! As the people cited in the earlier paragraph correctly instruct, put the pasta into the pot whole and unbroken. Sure the stuff is gonna stick out of the pot a little bit – for about thirty seconds. After that the noodles will have softened enough that a little gentle stirring will bring them all together into the pot nice and neat. Everything fits and no breaking required. Do you think Italian pasta manufacturers are stupid. Do you suppose they make pasta ten inches long just so that you can bust it into five-inch pieces? They call it “long pasta” for a reason. And if you don't want or like it long, buy short pasta! Leave the long stuff alone! Uffa!

Hey, it's a free country. And as Julia Child famously said, “If you're alone in the kitchen.......who's going to know.” Break the pasta in half. It's your dish. Heck, Barilla markets a pre-cut spaghetti called “Fideo.” It's about 3/4-inch long. That ought to fit in your pot and on your fork. And Mueller's wimps out with something called "Pot-Sized" pasta. Whatever. But if you want to prepare and enjoy spaghetti, linguine, and other long pastas the way they are intended to be prepared and enjoyed, leave them in their natural form.

Don't break the pasta. Grazie.

Buon appetito!

4 comments:

  1. Absolutely agree and thinking what this poor pasta did to people that they have to break it???

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  2. Love, love LOVE!! I've been arguing with my husband about this for years...and I have been telling him over and over that you "just don't" Thanks for giving me a great, cheeky article to read to him about it :)

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  3. thank you for settling an argument I was just having with my boyfriend. I was raised to believe that breaking pasta is sacrilege, as well as baaaaad luck. Personally, on the few occasions I've been forced to choke it down as a guest in other people's homes, I found it to be very starchy, & unpalatable (possibly not so much due to the breakage, as the fact that anyone who would dare break pasta is most certainly a terrible cook, & probably doesn't use enough water in the cooking pot, &/or overcooks it!) regardless, blech! Ptuey! Never trust a pasta breaker.

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  4. I just watched an episode of King of Queens and just saw Remini break a pack over the pot.
    Thanks to this article I realized I have gladly been doing it right and I cut the cooked pasta for my kids until they turned 5. Phew!

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