I used to think pasta needed a load of creamy or tomatoey sauce for it to be enjoyable. But as I learned about cooking and eating pasta (mainly from my partner Adam, who I am happy to admit, is a better cook than I am) the way it is supposed to be eaten, as the Italians eat it, I realised the best pasta dishes are very simple, and don’t come heavily glooped in sauce.
There are some simple rules for creating great pasta. First, the star is the pasta itself, with a few select and very fresh co-stars alongside. Second, the pasta must be cooked al dente, so that when it’s almost ready you take a piece out to test and if a little tiny bit in the middle is uncooked (you can see it), it is ready. It must be cooked in a large pan, full of boiling salted water – and a good amount of this water must be kept aside to emulsify the dish afterwards (very important in this dish as it happens). Thirdly, for a truly great pasta dish, the recipe must comprise only a few other very fresh ingredients like (in this instance) good shellfish, or some quality meat or seasonal vegetables, plus a generous amount of good olive oil, and usually plenty of garlic. Sometimes chilli. And more often than not, some fresh herbs. Lastly, dried pasta is, in most cases, better than shop bought fresh. It is worth buying the best dried pasta you can afford. It is fairly cheap stuff at its best, so this isn’t too much to ask. When you have these components, you are eating the pasta as it is intended to be eaten. De Cecco is good and available from all supermarkets.
This dish is simplicity itself, as you can see from the list of ingredients. However, it is a hard dish to master, as you need to be completely in control of what you are doing to get each individual component right.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
12-16 (depending on size) fresh, whole, uncooked prawns
Extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
1 or 2 large red chillies, sliced thinly
Small glass of white wine
100g or so of linguine per person
Juice of 1 lemon
Bunch of fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
- First, prepare the prawns. Peel the shells as if they were cooked – I find it works to yank the legs off and then the shells come easily. Get a sharp knife and devein them: slit a couple of millimetres into the back (the opposite side to where the legs were), all the way down to the tail, and you should see a wet little grey slimy tube. Pull it out and discard with the shells. You should be left with a pile of grey prawns with no heads or shells and a barely noticeable opening all along the back where you deveined.
- Put your pasta on to cook. In a large pan bring salted water to the boil and place linguine in. Keep it moving every now and then to prevent sticking.
- Warm a very generous glug of oil in a large frying pan. Then tip your garlic in. You want to almost poach the delicate garlic slices in the oil, gently, without colouring them. Try tipping the pan to one side, so that they deep fry, but really gently. When you’ve done this for about 5 minutes, thrown in the chilli and gently fry together for another 5 minutes. The mixture will colour a little but you don’t want it to be ‘toasting’ as this will overpower the dish. Next pour in the wine and turn the heat up. Then throw in the prawns and stir so that they become pink. Toss them around in the heat for a couple of minutes, no longer.
- Whilst the prawns are cooking, if not before, test your pasta. If you can see a little speck of uncooked-ness at the centre, it is ready. DO NOT THROW YOUR PASTA WATER AWAY! Using a pasta spoon or similar, take your pasta from the water, and put into your frying pan which should now have prawns, garlic and chilli mixture ready and waiting. Keep the pasta water to one side. Don’t worry about the fact that the pasta is dripping water into your dish, that’s a good thing. Take the pan off the heat.
- Because your dish has no sauce, as it were, you need to feed some pasta water into your dish to emulsify the dish and bring it together. Keeping the whole thing moving, throw in your roughly chopped parsley, juice of 1 lemon, and then about half a mugful of pasta water. Stir vigorously. Glug some more olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Taste. If you think it needs more moisture, do not be afraid of throwing more pasta water, very gradually though, into the dish. It soaks up water like nobody’s business and you may fine you put another half mugful in.
- Serve with lots of fresh parsley on top.