Pasta, Risotto and other yummies

Pasta has been around for thousands of years; so has rice, so has couscous, so has polenta. Yet when you introduce them into conversation and describe how you made them yourself, you are immediately accorded some form of celebrity status.

Italian restaurants still paint ’homemade pasta’ on their windows as though it’s as unique as a sighting of the Tasmanian tiger, and people still think of pasta and risotto dishes as desperately tough to prepare and requiring large reservoirs of knowledge and experience. It should not be so. Pasta and grains and all the opportunities they proffer for simple yet classy eating should be as much part of our understanding as the 3Rs.

Perhaps this is starting to be the case. I think I was well past the voting age before I had tasted my first bowl of pasta. Such was life in Australia for the baby boomers. But it has all changed in the heady days since baby boomers became baby makers. My children, all born in the middle of the eighties, now speak fluently when it comes to pasta. And the middle one, whose eating habits are a pay-back from the Lord for my own obtuseness when young, now has two all-time favourite dishes:

(i) ’noodies’, which may well have been her first words, closely followed by ‘more’ as in ‘more noodies’;

(ii) Parmigiano Reggiano, which in the language of a two-, three-, and now four-year-old has become ‘parjano rejano’.

Of course she took ages to like the one mixed with the other. Now noodies are not noodies without pajarno rejano. I can’t get cross with her. I was 12 before I tasted the wonders of baked pumpkin, on the way to 30 when I made my first pasta dish, and 35 before risotto became more important than the latest sports scores.

Now I like to think of pasta and risotto in the same way as sandwiches. They are carriers of fun in food carriers of glorious, extra special flavours, or of flavours that are just hanging about, as in sitting around in the fridge waiting to be loved.

What you’ll need


A simple pasta machine, as has been hanging about Italian kitchens since Marco Polo was in short pants. This is a bright, stainless-steel affair, which looks like an old-time washing machine from the days when we used to run white-as-white shirts through the high rollers. If you are fair dinkum about pasta you must have one of these machines. They are very cheap and last for what seems like forever. And don’t think it will mean pasta won’t appear as often on your table. The reverse is true.

If you are lazy, and can’t be bothered making your own pasta, find a good dried version. You can buy fresh pasta from speciality shops, but for the effort it takes, it is very expensive.


A herb garden or, at the worst, a pot plant at the back door or on the window sill dedicated to growing herbs. Any pasta dish will get a boost with the addition of a handful of herbs picked seconds earlier. For those of you with little patience, like me, the most reliable perennials are rosemary, thyme, oregano and tarragon. Of course, you must make room for basil every spring.


Flair. Pasta and rice work with anything in the fridge, as long as you are prepared to try it. Remember one basic rule: never drown the pasta, risotto, couscous or polenta in sauce; just let the sauce hold the strands or nooks or twists or grains, and keep it simple.


An occasional windfall of cash, so you can go out and buy a few kilos of Parmigiano Reggiano. I have referred to this wonder all through the book as Parmesan, so you won’t think you have to spend freely to enjoy simple food. Parmigiano Reggiano is the hard, cow’s milk cheese which comes to us courtesy of centuries of traditional cheese making in Parma, north-central Italy. It is so beautiful, words fail me, but because it takes several years to reach peak maturity  - there are younger versions available which are like young wines: still lovely, but short of their top - it can get pretty pricey. Try it now and then as a treat, but do as the Italians do, and go for the Grano Padano as your standby daily grating cheese. Each of these cheeses has its name stamped on the rind, so don’t be conned by the unscrupulous. And don’t consider Parmigiano Reggiano to be merely a grating cheese - that’s a little like calling cricket a ball game. Try it with pears, try it with raspberries. And whenever a melting cheese is called for, try Raclette, the famous Swiss cheese, now made in commercial quantities at Wodonga on the Victoria – New South Wales border.


Chillies are not usually found in much modern Italian cooking. You’ll find it in my versions because I like it for what it does best enhancing the flavour of its master. Chilli does not have to mean fiery; consider it more like salt and pepper, an enhancer and underliner of the main event.


Tinned tomatoes are essential for the pasta cupboard, so you can always know there is a sauce waiting to be cooked, no matter what’s not in the fridge. I don’t usually recommend tinned products, but tinned tomatoes, with no added sugar or salt, are just as good as your own bottled version when it comes to making sauce, and they’re very cheap. Just open the tin, squash them up with a strong fork, add a bit of salt, and a chilli, and put them in the microwave. You’ll have a powerful, thick sauce in half an hour.


Several packets of different pasta shapes, so, as with the tomatoes, there’s always a meal around. Shapes are not a return to childhood fantasies - they are great for holding thick sauces, and hiding surprises, and they keep the kids happy in their grumpiest moments. Try something like orecchiette - little ears - with clams or chopped olives. You’ll never know what might turn up, where. And always have farfalle around; there’s a lovely wit in these little butterflies, or bow-ties.


Make sure you’ve got a solid supply of full-flavoured virgin olive oil. It can help turn the mundane into the magnificent with a few swishes here and there. It is also a must to kick-start the risotto, and it doesn’t have to be wildly expensive. Treat your reserves of olive oil like wine: some for quaffing, some for extra special occasions.


Arborio rice is the signature of risotto. It’s plumper than most rice and gives a wonderful excess of starch to the risotto pot. In the best of Arborio rice, that starch tastes marvellous, and adds a certain extra thickness to the finished dish. Arborio rice, produced in the Po Valley of northern Italy, absorbs liquid very well, and, strange as it may seem, is rather handsome in its final glory. I couldn’t live without it.


A heavy-bottomed stock pot with a bit of size is probably essential in any kitchen, but you absolutely can’t do without it when cooking rice or pasta. It will ensure a minimum of sticking.


A microwave is my left and right hand, for fun and efficiency. It will turn polenta on its ear in minutes, and tomatoes into glorious, thick sauces while you are downing sherry in the easy chair. It’s also pretty good at re-heating pasta and risotto.


Bacon imparts a very special flavour to most things it is mixed with. How can you resist the aroma when somebody wakes early and starts cooking bacon? There are different qualities of bacon available, although the commercial variety is much better than many things made in bulk. If your butcher makes his own, all the better. Support him, even if the price is a little outside your budget.