"A tantalizing testament to the sentiment “less is more,” pasta al limone isn’t outstanding despite its simplicity — it is sensational because of it."
Erin Clarke - Well Plated by Erin
This is Melbourne in summer. It has been pouring - well not quite pouring - all day and half the night, but steadily enough to create a mini river of water, taking all the topsoil (what there is left) with it, and streaming down our block of land to the big river over the back fence. It's very dark, and not that warm - 22 I think. One wonders whether one should retrieve one's winter clothes. A day with little or no inspiration and little to look forward to in terms of dinner, because I feel I really must serve up reheated pizza or it will go off. I suppose I could risk it for one more day and cook something exotic, but I probably should have thought about that earlier. Although, now, thanks to David I may have the answer.
I was moaning about my lack of inspiration when David spotted the forlorn picture in the centre above - a somewhat desiccated lemon pip in the bowl that holds my garlic and which currently hosts just one lone garlic clove. "Lemon and garlic" he said. 'But I've done that before' I said. 'I must have'. Anyway pursuing my week's photographic challenge of 'up close' I took a photo of the pip and the clove and went away to think. I ruminated on a few other things - I have been doing so all morning, but finally thought about pasta al limone. I don't think I have ever made it but I see it every now and then on the net, and I have certainly mentioned it to my children as a quick and simple pasta to make. Although I suspect it's one of those 'simple isn't necessarily easy' things. So here goes.
The weather had made me miserable - well just a bit, certainly not in the mood for reheated pizza. So first of all my mind turned to comfort food - roast chicken, soup, stew - that kind of thing. But somehow I couldn't fancy any of them. Then my mind turned to summery food - pretending it's actually not raining and that you really are in a hot (not too hot) sunny Melbourne summer. Though I hasten to add that there are severe disadvantages with that kind of Melbourne summer - bushfires. But one can always pretend and so I went back to David's suggestion of lemon and garlic. I mean how Mediterranean can you get? Mediterranean = summer. At least it used to. Never again I fear, so it has to be recreated. And then I thought of pasta al limone, the idea of which I have toyed with for some time. Today is the day.
Origins - there aren't any really other than a slight argument it seems between Sicily and the Amalfi coast as to where it was invented. They both have lots of luscious lemons, so that figures. A thin kind of pasta - spaghetti, linguine - that kind of thing. Chunky sauces for chunky pasta, creamy sauces for thin pasta.
Variations and arguments. Purists say just lemons, butter and pasta - with Parmesan of course. Others add cream, parsley, breadcrumbs, anchovies, chillies and garlic. Not everyone adds garlic. In fact more don't than do, but because David mentioned the garlic I will. I'm pondering on breadcrumbs for crunch but otherwise will be pretty purist I think. No cream - I'm a fan of pasta water for creaminess, and no parsley. I haven't got any. What I have growing in the garden is pretty pathetic, but if there is a break in the rain I might go and have a look see if there is any. In the selection of recipes I have given further down the page, a few have various of these extra additions. I think once you get to adding things like ham, spinach, mushrooms or fish though you are not talking about the same thing any more. The anchovies shouldn't really be included, and I won't be adding them. David doesn't like them. Or the chilli.
The next interesting thing was a result of a quick browse through likely sources in my cookbook collection. Not a single one of them had a recipe. None in Italy the Beautiful, Jamie's two Italian books, Claudia Roden, Elizabeth David, Italian Safari, Mietta. Nothing. Which was beginning to make me wonder whether this is a modern invention. It certainly has a modern kind of touch to it. Simple and elegant and yet timeless.
Online was not much better - no that's not quite fair. Delia has Lemon pasta with herbs and cracked pepper although the emphasis here is on herbs rather than lemon, and look, she sins by having penne rigate as her pasta. Nigella also sins - she has two versions one with egg yolks and cream and the other with mushrooms and thyme. Her Lemon linguine is the 'purer' one. I mean once you start adding things like mushrooms it's not lemon pasta but mushroom pasta isn't it? Her 'purer' one though is a good example of the strand that uses cream instead of pasta water. I think the egg yolks are a step too far away from simplicity though.
So of course I turned to The Guardian. Surely Felicity has had a go at making the perfect Pasta al limone I thought. But no she hasn't. Their Italian columnist Rachel Roddy has three versions though. The two below are Pasta with anchovy, lemon and breadcrumbs, and Spaghetti with lemon, parsley and breadcrumbs. Her third - Spaghetti with lemon, parsley, garlic and chilli has no picture I'm afraid, but with be very similar in appearance. And none of them are as pure and simple as this dish is supposed to be. They're actually rather like what I would do. I can never resist elaborating. And I'm sure they are all great.
Yotam Ottolenghi almost is simple, which is perhaps a bit of a surprise with his Tagliolini with walnuts and lemon but Nigel Slater has nothing. All of which leads one to wonder again about the true origins of the dish.
One is reassured though by a few Italian food bloggers, like Basics with Babish, although hers has chilli, garlic and parsley, plus a couple of more complicated variations, and most of the other foodie magazine type websites have a version. At the top of the page is the Serious Eats version, which is perhaps the purest of the lot, other than it has garlic.
I have to say that all of the recipes I found, and some of the comments beneath those recipes raved about how amazingly, and perhaps surprisingly, delicious this dish was. Simply because of the lemon. Mind you they all insisted that the lemons had to be organic because you would die from the chemicals on the skin of supermarket versions. Alas today I only have supermarket lemons, so if I never post a blog again, you will know what happened.
The lemon is the thing though.
"Lemon juice acts in much the same way as salt, bringing out flavours. It’s the equivalent of a sound engineer, adjusting the balance, lifting, deepening, sharpening, brightening, filling out, making things taste more like themselves." Rachel Roddy - The Guardian
I shall be adding garlic though in honour of David's initial suggestion that started me out on this journey.
And let me finish with this rather touching video of Gennaro Contaldo making Lemon pasta in Italy somewhere, in memory of his great friend Antionio Carlucci who had just died. He adds chilli - but yes he does the pasta water thing. The end of a life is celebrated with this most simple of dishes made in a matter of minutes.
And although that is a sad note on which to end, I have cheered myself with the prospect of a touch of summer in pasta al limone - with garlic.
Serve with a green salad. Now I have plenty of lettuce growing in the garden. Must find my umbrella.