Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dig In - Dry Pasta

If you can boil water you can cook pasta.  If you can cook pasta you will never lack for a quick, nutritious homemade meal.  The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.  (Note - this post primarily concerns dried pasta - the kind we associate with Italy. We will save the topic of Asian style pasta - usually just called noodles - for another day.)

I can't remember my first pasta cooking experience, but it probably involved good old elbow macaroni.  Chances are I used the macaroni to make our classic family hot dish, which included browned ground beef, cooked macaroni, condensed cream of tomato soup and Velveeta cheese.  In those days we did not even use the word pasta.  We had spaghetti, macaroni and wide egg noodles.  Period.  Oh, yes - and occasionally a box of lasagne noodles for special occasions.  And it was all Creamette or American Beauty brand.

Americans love pasta
I have come a long way in the decades since my first macaroni hot dish, and so has America.  Fresh and dried pasta can be found everywhere, in over 80 shapes, widths and lengths.   And we must love it, because every year Americans eat about 20 pounds of pasta per capita.  We don't love pasta as much as the Italians, Swiss, Venezuelans, Tunisians and Greeks.  The Italians, of course, top the list at 62 pounds a year. 

U.S. pasta consumption is on an upward trend - partly because people are looking for more low cost meal options.  Pasta is still a very good value, even with the rising prices due to the rising price of durum wheat.  And it stores well on the shelf and goes with just about everything.  I like having dry pasta around because  I know that as long as I have spaghetti, olive oil and fresh garlic or shallots,  I can make a great meal with whatever other vegetables, meat, cheese or herbs are on hand.

Mark Bittman calls pasta a "reliable and lovable staple", adding that it is "cheap, convenient and can be prepared in thousands of different ways."  And I have never met a child who did not love pasta - with butter and cheese if nothing else.

A little history
No - Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to the West from China.  He certainly might have brought some back from his travels, but records show that pasta was being eaten in what was to become Italy 1,700 years before he was around.  Chinese records dating back as far as 5,000 B.C. show the eating of noodles.  So before we start thinking that we modern Americans are so smart, we have to remember that the Chinese figured out pasta a really long time ago.  Of course, we invented Franco American spaghetti in a can, so we have something we can be proud of too.

How to cook pasta - a few tips
Use lots of water - at least a gallon per pound of pasta.   Make sure it is at a full boil when you add the pasta.  Salt the cooking water - about 2 T. per gallon.  Cook uncovered.  Keep the water boiling and stir frequently.  Don't add oil or butter to the cooking water - it will interfere with the sauce adhering later.  If you have problems with pasta sticking,  then you need more water, more stirring or better quality pasta.  Cook the pasta until al dente ("to the tooth") - so it is just barely done and is a little chewy.  Don't trust pasta cooking times on the box - they are a good guide but you need to taste the pasta yourself.  You will get it right with a little practice. Overcooked pasta is an abomination unto the Lord.

Drain the pasta and serve right away.  The only time to rinse pasta is if you are going to use it in a pasta salad and need to stop the cooking.

The Barilla Group website has a nice section on cooking pasta if you really want to study up on this topic.

Pasta and nutrition
Two ounces of dry pasta (the regular kind, not whole wheat) contains 210 calories, 8 grams of protein (about 10% of the recommended daily allowance), 1 gram of fat and 42 grams of carbohydrates.
When you are planning to serve pasta as a main dish,  you should probably allow for 4 ounces of dry pasta per adult serving.  If you are feeding a teen aged boy, allow for 6 ounces.  A one cup serving of cooked spaghetti contains 200 calories

Pasta is a very nourishing food. It is easily and slowly digested, helps you feel full longer and is low in fat, sugar and salt.  The fattening part of pasta is the sauce.  If you use a moderate amount of sauce and keep the sauce relatively low in fat and calories, a pasta meal is a wise choice.

What is the best brand of pasta?
The best dry pasta is made with 100% durum wheat, which is refined and ground into a yellowish white flour called semolina.  It contains more vitamins and proteins than ordinary white flour.  Many excellent brands of pasta are made in the U.S. with wheat grown in the U.S. - so you can be patriotic and eat good pasta at the same time.  Avoid pasta that is too cheap - chances are it is made with inferior wheat.   Like everything else, you will need to pay for quality.  But good pasta is still very affordable.

There are many perfectly acceptable brands of dry pasta - especially if you are looking for basic shapes like spaghetti, linguini or penne.  The Italian based Barilla Group is the world's largest manufacturer of dry pasta - probably for a good reason.   I often buy Barilla - it is made in the U.S.,  is of excellent quality, reasonably priced and available in a wide variety of shapes and styles.  Barilla has a new line of 51% whole wheat pasta which I have tried and found to be quite good.  (Sometimes whole wheat pasta has an unappealing texture.)  They also have a PLUS brand which is even higher in nutrition, which I have not yet tried.

I have also used a lot of DeCecco pasta over the years and it has fulfilled its long reputation for being a high quality pasta.  I am pretty sure it is still made only in Italy.  De Cecco is on the high end when it comes to price - but they also carry an organic line of pasta.

I generally have not found it necessary to buy expensive specialty artisan brands of dry pasta.  I prefer to save my money for buying quality meat, vegetables and really good Parmesan cheese for sauce.  If any of you have found a good quality specialty dry pasta which you think is worth the extra cost - please share your secret.

Homemade pasta
It is worth trying homemade pasta.  All you need is all purpose flour, some eggs, a little salt, a mixing bowl and spoon and a good rolling pin and rolling surface.  Don't invest in fancy equipment until you are sure you are going to use it.  I have had my hand cranked Atlas pasta machine for about 35 years now and do enjoy it.  When you consider how expensive a simple restaurant pasta meal can be, you could justify the expense of an Atlas machine even if you only drag it out twice a year.   Look for a future Hands On post on homemade pasta.  It will be fun to try some squash ravioli with sage butter sauce when the winter squash season rolls around.

Some pasta sauce recipes

I recommend always having at least one type of "long" pasta around - such as spaghetti, thin spaghetti, or linguine.  And a tubular kind such as penne or mostaccioli.   Different shapes of pasta are suited for different sauces.  For an excellent discussion of matching pasta with sauces, see

Peggy's basic tomato sauce
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot.  Saute 1/2 cup each of celery(or fennel), carrot and onion.  (1/2 cup chopped mushrooms also would be nice) along with 1 t. finely minced fresh garlic - for about 10 minutes or until vegetables are soft.  Optional - add and brown about one pound ground meat after vegetables are soft.  Add two quarts of chopped or crushed tomatoes - fresh (peeled), frozen or canned, one cup full bodied red wine, 1 t. salt, 1/4 t. pepper,  1 bay leaf, 1 t. crushed fennel seed, fresh or dried basil and oregano (about 2 t. each if you are using dried, 4 T. if fresh)  If you have pesto, use a spoon or two of that instead of dried herbs.  Simmer over low heat, uncovered, until sauce reaches desired thickness.  Adjust seasonings to taste.

Pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes
(Note - there are a lot of good pasta recipes on the Barilla web site - link below.) If you still have fresh basil and green beans around from this week's CSA box - this is a great dish to try.  Nutritious, filling, easy and flavorful.  If you don't have linguine - use spaghetti or vermicelli.  A long kind of pasta would be best with the pesto sauce.

How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman
If you do not already own this book and you want to cook more pasta - you might check this book out.  It has an excellent section on pasta and noodles, including the following lists:
32 pasta dishes you can make in the time it takes to boil water and cook pasta
12 alternative toppings for pasta
27 vegetable and legume dishes to toss with pasta
12 classic pasta dishes
and last but not least --  20 quick and easy ways to spin fast tomato sauce
This adds up to 103 different pasta ideas.  Mamma Mia!

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