By Letizia Mattiacci
have always been obsessed by the chemicals present in plants, so much that my friend Sandra Cordon, who recently published a gripping historical novel set in Umbria, named one of the main characters in her novel Letizia.
My namesake is a hard working herbalist who spends her time assisting wounded Vatican spies and condottieri fighting each other in the dark alleys of Renaissance Perugia.
I could never have been that Letizia. I tend to faint at the sight of anything deeper than a mosquito bite. Most likely I wouldn't have had much of a career as an early 16th-century healer.
However, my passion for extracting the essence of food plants determines how I deal with food everyday. I hardly ever boil sauces or fry onions. Instead, I let them simmer very slowly, always covered, so the aromas condense on the lid and fall back into the food.
I keep condiments like oil and vinegars in small containers so they don't decay due to oxygenation.
Did you know, for example, that there are foods truffles or fennel among them that should hardly be subjected to any cooking? They're already perfect before cooking and temperature just makes their precious aromas more volatile.
Did you just cook something with fresh basil or parsley? Next time, add it uncooked, just before serving, and you'll taste the difference.
Have you ever asked yourself, before throwing a bunch of ingredients in a pot, how will the combination actually smell? It's a simple consideration but taking time out to analyze your combinations can save you from an aromatic disaster, or even yield a pleasant discovery.
Most often than not, the correct extraction process means you'll only need only need few ingredients mixed in right proportion. More does not mean better, and certainly not when it comes to natural flavors.
This recipe for among the simplest of all Italian pasta sauces is a perfect example of less is more.
The sauce uses three ingredients. Butter (the base) lemon (the fragrance), and cheese, the umami-rich, or savory, ingredient. Nothing is cooked. The lemon peel is barely infused in the warm butter. The cheese is melted with the indirect heat of a little pasta water.
The result, I think, is phenomenal. And it's all due to gentle aromatic extraction. Try it for yourself.
Fettucine with Lemon Butter Sauce
Heat the butter and zest in a pan that's large enough to hold the pasta. Keep it on low heat until the butter melts. Add the lemon juice but don't cook it otherwise it will become bitter.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water according to package instructions. Fresh fettuccine should cook no more than a minute.
Set aside some pasta water. Strain the noodles and transfer them quickly into the saucepan. Increase the heat and briefly stir.
Add the Parmesan and a couple of tablespoon of pasta water and stir some more until the liquid is absorbed. Serve immediately and accompany with a zesty white wine.
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