Most chefs are pretty capable of cooking pasta, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. I say “most” because there are huge numbers of self-styled professional cooks who suffer from a serious defect whenever they attempt to expedite the process. The defect involves the manner in which they set up to serve up pasta dishes to a large crowd, something you yourself have tried to do from time to time no doubt.
Some qualifications are necessary. First large-scale establishments, like hotels and cruise ships, attempt to serve anywhere from 2 to 3 thousand people 3 or more times per day. It is impossible to feed masses of humanity of that size and expect three-star Michelin quality. Can’t be done. That is not to say however that these kitchens can’t turn out an outstanding dish now and then. They do.
Second, kitchen staff is a moving target. Chefs and sous-chefs come and go. This inevitably makes it difficult to maintain consistency throughout.
Third, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect the Executive Chef, the place where the buck stops, in large operations most often hail from countries with food cultures far removed from anything remotely resembling pasta cuisine. Now I’m not saying you have to be Italian to make good pasta, only that these otherwise highly talented chefs from, say Asia or Philippines (most prevalent on cruise ships) have to retune their skills a bit to achieve good results with “continental” dishes, unlike cooks coming from Europe or the U.S. No matter how you slice it, as a whole, Western cuisine is not their strongest suit.
I expect to be taken to task for this comment but I’m stickin’ to it.
Which now brings us to the body of the crime. In an attempt to shortcut the prep and service time, restaurant chefs whether on board or on shore – have succumbed to the habit of boiling large quantities of the pasta halfway and then removing it to a holding station. Whereupon the pasta starts either drying out or soaking up more water.
Once a table order is placed the server pulls out a portion of the half-cooked product, which by now is all stuck together in globs, and drops it into a pot of hot water for a few minutes to finish the cooking. OMG! The result is a pasty-textured composition lacking any flavor. The server then proudly decorates the glob of twice cooked ziti or spaghetti with something resembling marinara or “bolognese” sauce, and parmesan cheese that of course has no connection to the authentic products from Bologna or Parma.
Now I’m well aware that these observations are subject to challenge but for the silent record here is the foolproof way to serve spaghetti to a large crowd one at a time or all at once and keep most of the quality intact:
- Fully cook the pasta according to package directions, even if you’re using a 50 gallon pot and 20 boxes of linguine! Observe the specified cooking time.
- Drain it off and immediately drizzle with a small spatter of olive oil to retard sticking. Toss to distribute the oil. Believe it or not the pasta can be kept covered and refrigerated for a number of days. It can be kept at room temperature as well until the guests arrive. You should also save the cooking water for reheating later.
- OK, to serve a portion to a guest simply grab some with a pair of tongs and transfer the pasta to a serving plate, dress it up with whatever hot sauce and then – believe it or not – microwave for one or two minutes. You can also first swish the serving in a very hot pan containing the sauce for a few seconds then microwave for a minute only.
To serve multiple guests at one time set up the serving dishes. Then draw out however many portions from the holding pot (containing the pasta dressed with a bit of olive oil) and quickly dunk them in simmering hot salted water for just one minute, preferably using the water you reserved and kept hot from the original cooking. Remove the pasta with a large slotted spoon or sieve. A pair of tongs works better for spaghetti or other long forms of pasta, but the best choice is to use one of those stock pots with a colander insert.
So much for that.
To finish up. while we’re at it here’s a reminder of things to consider whenever the pasta spirit moves you:
- Pasta water must be rapidly boiling, not just simmering, unless of course you’re cooking delicate home made egg noodles or ravioli, which don’t like being knocked around in the pot so much. In that case simmering water is ok.
- There must be salt, any kind, sea salt, grey salt, kosher, table whatever. This means one heaping tablespoon per gallon and no less. If you are on a salt-free diet skip the pasta altogether. Besides it’s all carbs anyway, right?
- Next there must be no oil added to the water. Adding oil does not prevent sticking while cooking, only occasional stirring does. Write that on the blackboard 500 times.
- Save some cooking water for drizzling over the dish after the sauce has been added to keep everything nice and loose. You can swish the pasta around in the pan containing the hot sauce if you need the extra exercise but that’s all it is, extra exercise, even though every italian-oriented chef on the planet swears by this routine. As noted above you can do this to reheat pasta that has been sitting for a while, not because you think the pasta will better absorb your favorite marinara.
- Finally, about the small drizzle of oil after cooking to prevent sticking: the “experts” claim that doing this prevents the pasta from absorbing sauce. I say baloney! I am waiting for the science crowd to test this unfounded and unproved hypothesis. When they do they will find that pasta set aside and dressed with a tablespoon or two of oil while awaiting service picks up virtually the same amount of sauce and tastes no different from a batch set aside with no oil.