Ingredients of the week: pasta and tomatoes

Versatile pasta and tomatoes are rightly regarded as kings of the kitchen. Here, we look at the history, geography and science behind each bite

PASTA

Any shape you like

The breadth of pasta shapes can be a touch overwhelming. There is such variety – squat ones, thin ones, some as long as your leg – that even if it was your life’s ambition to try the lot, you’d be doomed to fail. In part this is due to some shapes being very specific to regions in Italy, barely known outside of the town that created them.

Pasta parcels

Part of the fun of pasta – aside from twirling strands round your fork then dropping them down your front – is in discovering the meaning for each name: like barbine, aka little beards, and fedelini, little faithful ones. Some paint pretty pictures – farfalle (butterflies) and orecchiette (little ears) – while others tell a sinister story, such as strozzapreti, which means priest strangler.

Toothsome truth

Overdone pasta – oh the shame. A shame because you wait an extra few minutes to eat it. A shame because you can’t enjoy the firm al dente texture. And a shame because you miss the nutritional benefits that pasta cooked this way brings, too – it requires you to masticate more, which stimulates digestive enzymes. It also has a lower glycemic index when boiled to this point, meaning it has less impact on your blood sugar levels.


TOMATOES

Warm at heart

Native to Central and South America, tomatoes naturally thrive in warm climates. It’s for this reason that, in general, they should be stored near to room temperature. Chilling a tomato will simply shackle its flavour and aroma. But the same principle doesn’t apply to a fully ripened tomato: once the fruit has reached the perfect maturity, it doesn’t gain from any extra time in warm conditions, so a spell in the fridge won’t hinder the taste and scent all too much.

Fruit for thought

The fact that the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable, might now be viewed as school-level knowledge, but why exactly do we almost always associate tomatoes with savoury food? From a flavour profile, there are two reasons: first, tomato has a very low sugar content (around three per cent – similar to cabbage). And second, it has an unusually high concentration of umami, a Japanese term meaning pleasant savoury taste.

Vine idea

We often discard tomato vines without a moment’s thought. But we’re losing some of the flavour the tomato has to offer. Or more accurately, the aroma. Enzymes and oils clash and collide to give the vines a tremendously intense scent – the essence of tomato. Try adding the vines to a dish near the end of cooking (remember to pull them out before serving) and you’ll have imparted a much stronger scent.