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If boiling water and preparing tea don’t count, then you can say pasta is my first ever kitchen experiment. In fact it was the only other dish (apart from stuffed baked potatoes) that I’d prepare on my own almost everyday as an evening snack when I was in college. Yes, you heard it right – an evening snack that served as a one of kind occasion for brother-sister bonding when we’d indulge in the sheer richness and flavour of pastas.

Cooking Pasta is like cooking sadam (rice) – a seemingly simple culinary task that can become quite difficult to master given the long list of criteria for that perfect bite of pasta.

I’ve had my share of “Al Dente” mishaps on a couple of occasions. The first one was when the time I tried Fusilli – I undercooked these interesting worms and tossed them in sauce in my over enthusiasm. Thankfully a few minutes in the microwave fixed the pasta. The second one was the first time I cooked fresh lasagna sheets. It was difficult to distinguish the vegetables. There wasn’t much to salvage this time.

Pasta that is cooked “Al dente”, literally meaning “to the tooth”, is soft but holds shape, chewy but not brittle and well separated but starchy enough for the sauce to stick. Over the several times that I’ve cooked pasta, I’ve acquired the practice enough to confidently prepare “Al Dente” pasta even in the middle of the night.

Method

  1. Take water in a large bring the water to boil. About 4-5 times the amount of pasta is a good measure of how much water one needs. I use 1 litre for 250 gms of spaghetti and some more if its penne or fussili.
  2. Add Salt to the water. About 2 tsp for 250 gms is the amount of salt I use. Not all of the salt will show on the pasta.
  3. Add the pasta to the pot. Drop the pasta in slowly. Lower the heat to medium once pasta has been added. Keep the heat between medium to high. Water needs to be at a heat that keeps it just about agitated to keep the pasta separate, but does not necessarily need to be bubbling.
  4. For the first two minutes stir the Pasta a few times. You can decrease the frequency of stirring after this. In general if you’ve used enough water and if you’re keeping the water at the right temperature, the pasta is not likely to stick to the pot very easily.
  5. Take a piece of pasta and slice and check if it has a white core a couple of minutes before the pasta is fully cooked. For dried pasta one should generally check at the 4th minute for thin spaghetti, the 5th or 6th minute for Penne and about the 8th or 9th minute for Fusilli.
  6. Cook for a minute more and check if the white core has disappeared. Taste the pasta. If it sticks to the back of your teeth, you can safely cook for an additional minute. Alternatively you can remove the pasta at this stage if this is your preferred chewiness level or if you’re going to toss this in a really hot sauce. For most Olive Oil based sauces, its preferable to have the pasta cooked till it doesn’t stick to your teeth.
  7. Drain the water immediately by pouring into a colander. Shake colander to drain water. Retain some of the water for non tomato based sauces. Reserve some of the water if the recipe calls for it. Toss pasta in sauce.

Notes:

  1. Many people add oil to the water while cooking pasta. I used to  do this on a chef’s recommendation but discontinued after sometime. Oil makes the pasta slippery and I found the amount of sauce that sticks especially to spaghetti can be unsatisfactory.
  2. Many people wash pasta after its been cooked to keep the pasta separate. If you have your sauce ready before the pasta is cooked, which you should, its pointless to wash the pasta. Washing pasta again reduces the amount of sauce that gets transferred onto the pasta and hinders the overall flavour. For sauces like Pesto, retaining some of the water in the pasta without shaking it all off through the colander should help you toss the pasta in without the pasta looking sticky. Adding olive oil or a teaspoon of butter while adding the pasta to sauce also works. In short, keep your sauce ready, don’t make your pasta go cold.

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Thayir Sadam or Curd rice is almost always the grand finale of every south indian meal (especially the tamizh variety). Now what might seems like a straight forward mixing of two simple ingredients is actually quite a task – considering the fact that the list of criteria for the perfect sadam (rice) and the perfect thayir (curd) is rather long. And then comes the experience of mixing and eating itself.

How to set the perfect thayir?

  • Bring Milk to a boil. (I use 3% Milk and my curd turns out quite creamy on most days)
  • Take off heat, transfer to a container and allow to cool down.
  • When Milk is lukewarm, take a couple of tablespoons of milk and mix it well with 1 tsp of curd.
  • Add this milk+curd mix to the rest of lukewarm milk.
  • Cover your container and leave the milk to set for 6-8 hours.
  • If you’re living conditions are under 25 degrees C – leave it in the oven. If its over 35 degrees C, please check after the 4th or 5th hour.
  • You know your curd is ready when the milk turns semi solid. Refrigerate immediately.

How to mix and eat Thayir Sadam?

  • Squish and Squash rice and curd with your palms, squish, squash, squish, squash – you get the idea.
  • With a quick circular motion take a mouthful onto your hands.
  • Flick this into your mouth. Chew, chew, chew – drown in the experience of the coolness of rice and thayir
  • Lick the last bits off your dripping palms. Repeat with rest of the thayir sadam.
  • Serve some more plain curd onto your plate.
  • Bring the plate to your mouth, tilt and empty contents into your mouth.
  • End with a burp (optional but its very much part of the sophisticated culture of finishing a south indian meal with thayir sadam)

How to make and eat the ultimate Thayir Sadam aka Baghala Bhaath?

Mixing instructions are here. Eating instructions are the same as above.

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