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Making Pasta Perfect

Company coming for dinner?  Kids hungry?  No time to cook? What to cook?  The answer is pasta, pasta and pasta!  Making a pasta dinner is one of the quickest and most well received meals of all time, be it spaghetti, macaroni and cheese or simply linguini tossed with butter and Parmesan cheese–you really can't go wrong.  And pasta is so versatile: you can serve it hot or cold, formed into a noodle cake, layered with vegetables, and on it goes.

The American love for pasta is not one of the food fads from which our nation suffers periodically.  It is based upon the solid ground that pasta can be served in infinite varieties and still constitutes economical and flavorful nutrition.  Pasta is a meal maker in itself.  The simplest pasta dish satisfies the appetite and palate in a unique manner, appealing even to difficult eaters like children and meat-and-potatoes addicts.  Pasta has staying power and its taste can be varied at will with costly or meager amounts of condiments or leftovers.  And pasta makes excellent vegetarian meals.

Pasta gives you choices.  For special events, you can spend hours making your own unstuffed or stuffed pasta, but you can also make wonderful dishes quickly with store-bought dry pasta.

Besides a big pot filled with boiling water and a strainer, no equipment is needed to cook pasta; even homemade pasta does not require any special tools besides a rolling pin.

What is pasta?

Pasta is made from flour, water and sometimes eggs; vegetable purees and other flavors such as curry or sesame may be added as well.  Its origins are obscure but it appears that the Romans, great consumers of wheat products, knew it in some shape or form.  Stories about Marco Polo bringing pasta back from China are pure legend; all he is reputed to say is that in China they have pasta resembling the Italian product.  As for America, Thomas Jefferson is said to have brought it back from his European travels.

Western pasta is made with water and hard durum winter wheat flour, which is rich in gluten and ``stronger" than ordinary flour.   It makes pasta that will not come apart in boiling water and lends itself to diverse shapes.  Semola is fine pasta flour milled from durum wheat; semolina  (or semolino) is one of the coarser grinds of this flour, which in Italy may be bought in different grinds from fine to coarse.  Semolina flour also makes the best kind of pasta at home, but be sure not to ask simply for ``semolina," which is the product known commercially as Cream of Wheat; rather one should always ask for semolina flour for pasta making. 

Italian Pasta

The foods of Italy are very different from one area to the next, a reflection of the great diversity of the Italian countryside and the wealth of the land. The cooking of Milan contrasts with that of Venice.  Both are markedly different from that of Umbria, Tuscany and the coast of Liguria.  Each province in Italy retains its traditional versions.  Ravioli may be laden with tomato sauce in one area but not in another.  Yet even the names differ. The ravioli in one province may be called tortellini in another, anolini somewhere else, tortelli in yet another province, or even cappelletti and agnolotti in still other provinces.  Noodles, for example, have a thousand names:  tagliarini, talitini, fettuccine, pappardelle; in Genoa they are trenetti and in Rome, tonnarelli.  Pasta is different in Bari, Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. But these cultural regional differences are what make pasta a glorious and infinitely interesting food.

Pasta is antiquity itself and its origins are not well known.  By the end of the 18th century, pasta was deeply rooted in the tastes of the Italian populace.  Some Italians in the north think pasta as a daily food is unsuitable, but the fact remains that the majority of Italians, in spite of the various rice and polenta dishes in the north, continue to eatpasta asciutta at midday and probably some kind of pasta in brodo at night.

Asian Pasta

To the surprise of many Italians and Americans a lot of pasta is eaten in Asia, largely in soups.   The reasons for this popularity is the same as in the United States–pasta tastes good, is nourishing, goes far and is inexpensive.

In spite of specific names of origin (Chinese noodles, etc.) the dried noodles we buy here in America are the product of many Asian countries, such as China, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and even Japan, though Japanese noodles are different.  The following is a description of the most popular of these noodles:

Egg Noodles can be bought fresh, dried or frozen in Asian markets. They are made from wheat flour, water and eggs like any noodles, and like any noodles, they are easy to overcook; they cook in minutes and the thinnest ones, in seconds.

Cellophane Noodles, also known as bean-thread noodles, silver threads or shining noodles, are made from the starch of the mung bean. These noodles should be soaked in hot water for 15-30 minutes, drained and then cooked briefly or until tender in boiling water or soup.

Rice Noodles are made from rice flour and should be soaked in cold water first from 15 minutes to 1 hour then cooked briefly in boiling water or soup until tender.

Japanese Noodles.  When called Udon, they are thick, whole-wheat noodles usually served in broth.  When called Somen, they are thinner and used in cold dishes and also in soups.  Soba, very popular noodles, are made from buckwheat flour and often served cold in salads.

Dry or Store Bought

There is no reason why you can't enjoy both kinds of pasta–though admittedly, not both at the same time!  All pasta sauces can be used on fresh homemade as well as on purchased dry pasta.

The main difference in preparing the two kinds lies in their cooking time.  Fresh homemade pasta is done in a matter of minutes (and in some cases even less) and therefore has to be carefully watched or it will be mushy.  Also, the yield of fresh homemade pasta is smaller than that of the dry commercial product because the homemade variety has greater moisture content, absorbs less water in cooking and therefore swells less.  Twelve to fourteen ounces of homemade noodles will yield about 4 cups cooked.

The advantages of store-bought pasta are that it is inexpensive and easy to buy in a variety of shapes and that it is ready to use when you need it quickly.  Dry pasta also keeps well, though not indefinitely–it will go stale.

How Much Dry Pasta to Cook

When a pasta product is used for a main dish, a good rule is to allow two ounces uncooked product per person.  However, one has to consider the appetites of the various members of the family.  For many, four ounces of spaghetti is the logical amount for one serving.  It may be helpful to know that macaroni and spaghetti approximately double in volume after cooking, while egg noodles remain about the same.

The following table will be helpful in determining the right amount to cook when one type is substituted for another and in deciding how much will be needed for any given number of persons.  Eight ounces will usually provide about four servings.

Product                                   Dry                                  Cooked

elbow macaroni                        2C (8 oz.)                        4-1/2C

spaghetti                                   8 oz.                                5C

egg noodles                                     8 oz.                                4C

Saucing Suggestions

Keep in mind a few rules that will make your pasta dishes taste as they should.   With short pastas, especially grooved and hollow ones, use a sauce with bits of meat, fish or vegetables that will cling to and penetrate the ridges and hollows.  Also suited to these pastas are ``white" sauces made with butter, cream and sometimes flour. 

For long or hollowed long pastas such as spaghetti, linguine or fettuccine, tomato sauces of every kind are good as are simple condiments such as oil and garlic, or seafood with or without tomatoes.

Remember that a heavy pasta, whatever the kind, takes a heavy sauce; for example, rigatoni, wheels or lasagna.  Thin, small or fragile pasta is best with simple dressings such as butter and cheese.  Noodles are generally considered to be the best kind of pasta side dish; however, in the end, let your own taste decide what sauce or dressing for which pasta.

With very few exceptions, such as pasta served with an oil/anchovy sauce or other fish sauces, pasta in Italy is invariably served with grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese.  The imported Parmesan, known as Parmigiano Reggiano, is the very finest and worth every penny of its rather high cost.

Cooking Pasta

8 oz. dry pasta

3 quarts water

1 Tbsp. salt (for taste)

In a large pot, bring the water to a boil. Gradually add the salt, then the pasta.  With spaghetti, grasp a handful and place one end of the strands in the water; as it softens gently push the pasta into the water until all of it is submerged.  Be sure the water continues to boil.  The rapid and continuous boiling helps keep the pasta moving so it will cook quickly, evenly and without sticking together.

Cook, uncovered, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon until tender.  Stirring helps to keep the pasta evenly distributed and moving in the boiling water so that all of it will be cooked at the same time.

Test for doneness by tasting a piece of pasta.  It should be tender, yet

firm–al dente, ``to the tooth."  Cooking time will vary with the size and thickness of the product.

Overcooking is the worst and most common of crimes against pasta.  Generally speaking, package directions advise too long a cooking time; ignore them and taste the pasta as it cooks and drain it while still al dente or to your liking.  Shake the cooked pasta not quite totally dry for the butter or sauce to cling all the better to it.

Immediately drain the pasta in a colander–do not rinse.  You will need a big colander for draining the pasta.  Serve as quickly as possible, or mix with other ingredients in the recipe, because freshly cooked pasta is the very best kind there is. 

Dining Out

If you are looking for a new pasta experience try the goat cheese and dried tomato ravioli with corn emulsion at MELISSERestaurant at 1104 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.  It is an elegant restaurant with exquisite fare–make reservations for that special occasion at (310) 395-0881.

Pasta Spots on the Web

1.  Order some really unique pasta, such as blue cornmeal pasta.

2.    Find out the difference between noodles and pasta.

3.    Get a lasagna with meat sauce recipe.

4.    Check out some pasta cooking tips.

5.    Pasta Makers in Rochester, N.Y., is worth a look, and a bite if you are in the neighborhood.

6.    Order some delicious pasta sauces .

7.    See all sorts of pasta shapes and learn what sauce to use them with here.

8.    Learn all about the famous Mendocino Pasta Company, with ordering information and recipes.

9.    Bon appetit magazine's site has a delicious recipe for Linguine with red pepper and walnuts.

10.          Order a pasta maker and make your very own pasta from scratch.

Rigatoni with hot and sweet sausage

3/4 lb. rigatoni

3 Tbsp. olive oil

2 large onions, thinly sliced

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 lb. cremini mushrooms, sliced

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 Tbsp. olive oil

2 sweet Italian sausages, casings removed, crumbled

2 hot Italian sausages, casings removed, crumbled

1 bunch fresh basil, cut in thin julienne strips

3-1/2 - 4C tomato sauce

8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil, add 1 Tbsp. salt, and return to a boil.  Add the rigatoni and cook until al dente, then drain well and set aside.

Heat a large sauté pan, add 3 Tbsp. olive oil and heat.  Add the onions and sauté 1-2 minutes until translucent, cover loosely with a piece of foil, turn the heat to low and cook the onions, stirring occasionally until golden brown and caramelized–about 45 minutes.

In a separate sauté pan, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil until hot.  Add the mushrooms and sauté over high heat until crisp.  Season with salt and pepper, remove and set aside.  Add the crumbled sausage and cook until no longer pink, drain.

In a large bowl, toss the rigatoni, caramelized onions, mushrooms, sausage and fresh basil strips together.  Add the tomato sauce and toss again.  Turn the mixture into a large gratin dish, cover with foil and bake 20 minutes or until hot.  Uncover, sprinkle with feta cheese and return to the oven for 5 minutes to soften the cheese.  Serve hot.

Makes 10-12 servings



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