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For American appetites, especially when pasta is the main course offered (that's not a bad idea, either), I count on a pound of pasta for four people. Each pound of pasta, no matter what shape it takes, needs about 5 quarts of very rapidly boiling salted water (a couple of tablespoons of salt for this quantity).When the water is boiling furiously, plunge the pasta in and immediately stir with a long wooden spoon. Cover the pan until the water is once again boiling furiously. Then remove the lid and let it cook very briskly, giving it a stir from time to time, until it is done to your pleasure-more or less al dente, which is a very relative term. Of course different shapes and sizes of pasta cook at different rates-only by testing, biting into a strand or a piece, will you know for sure when it is done.Have a colander ready and a warm bowl in which to put the drained pasta (warm the bowl by adding a couple of ladles of boiling pasta water as it finishes cooking). A moment before the pasta reaches perfection, drain it into the colander and then turn it into the warm bowl (first emptying the bowl of pasta water) to be sauced.

Another method that can be useful for certain recipes is to drain the pasta two or three minutes before perfection and then turn it into the sauce on the stove. Let the pasta heat in the sauce that extra two or three minutes: the pasta will absorb the flavor of the sauce, and the whole will be more homogeneous. In either case, unless the recipe specifically states otherwise, dress the pasta as soon as it is done. Never run water over the pasta after it has been drained-that myth about rinsing starch away doesn't hold up. Then serve the pasta immediately.

One other caution: We Americans tend to serve too much sauce for the pasta, almost as if the pasta were there only to eke out the sauce, sort of a Mediterranean-style Hamburger Helper. The reverse, in fact, is true: the sauce is there simply to garnish the pasta. In the recipes that follow, proportions have been calculated Italian style, and it would be a mistake to change them. One of the great cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet is the importance of carbohydrates (pasta, bread, grains, beans) and the role played by savory sauces in lending pleasure and excitement to these essentially rather bland parts of the meal. To reverse that would be to increase the amount of fat, and often the amount of meat, at the expense of those valuable carbohydrates. Besides, it wouldn't taste good.

Pay attention to ingredients. The best-quality canned whole tomatoes are better than fresh tomatoes in many parts of the country and at many times of the year. Garlic should be plump and firm, each individual clove properly swollen to fill its papery husk. Herbs for the most part are better fresh than dried-and staples like parsley are always available fresh-although dried oregano, fennel seeds, and bay leaves are exceptions. Don't bother using dried basil, however.



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