Matt Wade, was a journalist based in Dubai when he got an invitation to a press conference on Lake Como in Northern Italy. The event organiser was Laura – now his wife. Marrying into an Italian family resulted in a newfound passion for pasta and a culinary career change…
What inspired you to write a cookery book?
Pastastic - The Recipe Book was really the next logical step after my Pasta Recipes Made Easy website had reached a couple of hundred pages. It is a shareable, easy-to-print version of the recipes, and a digital e-book.
But you don't classify yourself as a cook?
No not really. I do cook, but in terms of my skill set and speciality, it's really all about the pasta. I wouldn't dare call myself a chef as that implies a well-rounded set of kitchen skills. For me, pasta is my niche and the more I learn about it, the more I want to learn (and discover there is to learn).
Why do your site and book just focus on pasta? A bizarre mix of reasons. Aside from always having loved pasta, at the time (early 2008) I wanted to create a niche website. As an ex-magazine editor, the publisher part of me just loved the idea of creating and uploading interesting content with the aim of creating a little niche club and gaining lots of traffic. Therefore I needed a topic. The ongoing brainstorm I had over this question actually occurred the year after my wedding when I was in the kitchen more than ever before. Once my mother-in-law, mamma Marisa introduced me to the easiest pasta dish known to man ('breakfast pasta'), I knew I'd found my calling!
Which part of Italy is Mamma Marisa from?
My wife's family is originally from Naples in the south and they still regard themselves as Neapolitans, however they have lived in Rapallo, Liguria (close to Italy's north-west tourist hotspots Cinque Terre and Portofino) now for many years. This, and the fact they have friends right across Italy, means I've been able to learn a great mix of pasta dishes: from Genoan pesto to Neapolitan ragu and spicy Sicilian dishes.
Are there any regional specialities in the book?
There are, from all kinds of regions too! The two Ligurian dishes I would point to first and foremost are traditional basil pesto, which is stupidly easy and tastes lovely and fresh smothered over pretty much any pasta, and a dish called La Genovese. This is effectively a kind of onion-only ragu and actually has a combined Ligurian and Neapolitan history. It's not quick to make, but all you really do is chop and stir, so it's not difficult at all. And it’s lip-smackingly delicious!
What was the first thing Marisa cooked for you?
'Breakfast pasta'. I turned up unannounced for lunch one day, and with nothing in the fridge Mamma Marisa got creative. She chopped a little leftover medium-hard cheese into chunks and dropped these in a mixing bowl. Then she popped some tagliatelle in a pan and melted a little butter in another. With these ready, she added everything to the bowl, stirred it through and served it with a fried egg on top. I can't tell you how tasty that dish was (I'm salivating now just thinking about it). "Even I can manage that!" I thought, and I was off. Since then the dishes I've learned have come sometimes from recipe's hand-written recipe book, sometimes direct from my wife, and often as not as a result of their shared knowledge.
What’s your favourite dish?
For me it's probably 'pasta alla norma'. Everyone should try this vegetarian winner at least once. It's basically short pasta shapes with a tomato sauce containing fried aubergine strips. This was the dish that really introduced me to the taste combination of soft, sweet, fried aubergine and rich tomato sauce. It's simple, but as with lots of Italian cuisine that isn't in any way to its detriment.
What's your most memorable meal?
That would be our 'make do' dinner the first night of our honeymoon, at Villa Pitiana near Florence in Tuscany. When we arrived after a long drive from the north they had mislaid our restaurant reservation, but the chef had some leftover bits of food in the kitchen. One glass of full-bodied chianti and plenty of "Can you believe we're married?" chat later and the chef walks back in with two dishes of fresh green tagliatelle coated in a glorious wild boar ragu sauce.
Are there any really unusual dishes in your book? La Genovese is not that well known outside Italy, or at least I've never seen it offered in any restaurant. There are also several Sicilian dishes which are unique to a friend of Marisa's who helped teach them to me. The book also includes one pasta-free recipe, which is so tasty I just couldn't leave it out. This is aubergine parmigiana which is similar to lasagna only with fried aubergine slices where the pasta sheets should be. It takes an age to make but the taste is glorious.
What would you recommend for someone wanting to whip up an easy dish?
A good starter is pasta with ricotta sauce. It's creamy thanks to the soft cheese, it's calorifically sweet (and therefore seriously moreish), and in making it you'll learn the basics of how to whip up a great Italian tomato sauce.
And for a dinner party?
That would be my new favourite - fresh open ravioli. I recently made this using spinach pasta dough, for a glorious green colour, then filled them with butter-fried wild mushrooms.
So is fresh pasta really better than dried?
No doubt! Fresh pasta is more succulent, it holds the sauce better, plus there's no chance of any preservatives being in there. The process of making it really isn't tricky either and there are numerous dough variations you can experiment with once you've nailed the basics, using different flours like chickpea or buckwheat, adding ingredients into the mix to colour your pasta and so on.
What’s your top tip?
I have three! The first is to always drop plenty of salt in your pasta water. For four people I use a full handful. The second is to use a lotof water when boiling long pasta (this helps to avoid sticking), and the third is to avoid that very British, I think Jamie Oliver-inspired disease of throwing a ton of garlic into every dish. It's really not the Italian way - for some seafood dishes yes, but often as not meat and veggie dishes do without it.