Ironically, in this era when every other person seems to be avoiding carbs or gluten, the pasta aisle at the grocery store offers more excitement than ever. Imported dried pastas, in a vast variety of shapes, sizes and flavors and brands, line huge sections of the shelves. Pasta shapes, heretofore relegated to fancy Italian restaurants, such as orecchiette, tagliatelle and pappardelle, prove relatively easy to find. Refrigerated cases boast stuffed pastas and tender sheets for lasagna. Then, there’s the every-growing selection of whole grain pastas, gluten-free pastas and vegetables sliced to resemble pasta noodles.
It can’t be true that the average household has given up pasta in favor of low-carb options. Pasta is simply a great ingredient worthy of our time in the kitchen and a place on the dinner table. There are a number of studies that say everything in moderation is the way to live long and prosper.
So, we happily employ pasta to solve our time-pressed weeknight dinner dilemmas. Spaghetti with buttered breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley and hot pepper flakes never fails to comfort both the cook and the table companions. Linguine with clam sauce (made with good-quality tinned clams and dry white wine) tops our hit list for dinner in less than 30 minutes. Same for penne with bottled tomato sauce and Parmesan. Leftovers make great lunch.
Most experts consider dried pasta equal to, or superior to, fresh pasta in terms of flavor and texture. What a relief! That means I can stock several shapes in the pantry and have dinner options at the ready.
To enjoy our pasta sans guilt means thinking seriously about portion control. Restaurants serve far more than the recommended serving size. At home, it’s much easier to avoid the temptation to overeat. I figure that 1 pound of dried pasta serves 8 — especially when accompanied by vegetables or a salad. Unless I’m planning on leftovers, I usually cook only a portion of a packaged of dried pasta. I store the remaining pasta in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
For main-dish pasta dinners that serve 4 nicely, I like a ratio of 1½ to 2 cups sauce for every 8 ounces of pasta. When the sauce contains chunks of vegetables and bits of protein, then 3 cups seems right. For lower-calorie family meals, I opt for a tomato-based topping. Rich and creamy additions suit entertaining or special occasion entrees.
At this point in our food-centric country, everyone should know not to overcook pasta to soft mush. The correct way to cook pasta is al dente — toothsome in the center when you bite it — but not at all crunchy or raw. The only way to be sure that the pasta is cooked enough is to keep tasting as it cooks. It’s better to err on the side of undercooked rather than over — the pasta will soften a bit from residual heat and from the hot sauce.
Cooked properly, there are two professional tricks to up your pasta game immensely: First, always reserve some of the pasta cooking water before you drain the pasta; this starch-laden water not only can be used to thin the sauce, but it actually helps the sauce adhere to the noodles. Second, always add the hot pasta to the heated sauce and simmer them together briefly to help the sauce cling. This is the point at which you can add dribbles of the pasta-cooking water to achieve a proper sauce consistency.
The recipes that follow are designed to be flexible — for the shopper, the cook and the eater. Change up the pasta shape as desired, and change up the protein to suit your tastes and dollars. Buy the best pasta you can afford. To me, that includes imported pasta made from durum wheat semolina.
The orecchiette (little ear-shaped pasta) recipe is delicious made with other shapes, such as rigatoni, penne and trottole — a sort of curlicue shape imported from Italy. I like the Pomi brand of marinara sauce imported from Italy for its bright tomato flavor (no citric acid) and mild spicing.
When company’s coming, I treat everyone to the pappardelle pasta recipe that follows — long, wide elegant noodles with shreds of duck tucked between them, along with golden nuggets of sweet prunes and sharp turnip. A bit of cream ties it all together.
For convenience, I like the frozen duck leg confit from Maple Leaf Farms. The package contains 2 legs of duck cooked slowly in its own fat. Super moist and tender, a little goes a long way. Smoked chicken is delicious here instead; same for cooked pork carnitas or roast turkey. Sliced, smoky steak bits would be delicious as well.