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Danville Express

Living - October 24, 2008

Epicure: A passion for pasta

by Jacqui Love Marshall

Who doesn't love pasta??? It's a universally popular food and, before the "low-carbs" craze, most families ate pasta several times per month. Pasta doesn't have to be high in calories if you limit your portions and the amount of sauces and fats you use with it. Pasta also digests easily and, as long as you get moderate to high physical activity, you should burn off the carbohydrates associated with it. Pasta meals are generally economic, nutritious and easy to prepare, especially as complete entrees.

One does wonder who first decided to throw bread dough into hot water and invent pasta. The Chinese have been making noodles since 3000 B.C. and pasta has been traced back to the fourth century B.C., on an Etruscan tomb showing people making pasta. Legends cite that it was Marco Polo who introduced pasta to Italy when he returned from his trip to Far East in the late 13th century. Pasta arrived in the New World via the English, who brought it from Italy.

Fresh pasta usually contains eggs, hence a brighter color, more flavor and higher nutritional value. Fresh pasta has a softer texture and needs only a short cooking time while dried pasta requires more cooking time and swells when cooked, about 60 percent more than fresh pasta.. The softer texture of fresh pasta goes well with lighter, simpler sauces; most dried pastas work better with thick sauces and sauces containing meat and vegetables.

Fresh and dried pasta comes in many varieties - long, e.g., spaghetti; flat, e.g., lasagna; short and tubular, e.g., penne; soup pasta, e.g., orzo; stuffed, e.g., cannelloni; and Asian noodles. Today, there are more than 600 pasta shapes worldwide.

Pasta dishes can be wonderfully light and flavorful or they can be dense, overcooked and over-sauced. A good cook masters the art of pasta cooking and dish-making with practice and more practice. There's a myth that throwing pasta on the wall is the true test to see if it is ready. The only thing this does is make a mess! Instead, remove a strand or two with a fork, then taste it. The Italian "al dente" method (or "to the tooth") requires the pasta to be soft with a very small white dot at the core, rendering it tender with a slightly firm bite.

Here are Epicure's top tips for cooking pasta and a few recipes to try. And, in case you didn't know, every Oct. 25 is World Pasta Day. Buon appetite!

Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at jlovemarshall@yahoo.com.

Tips for cooking pasta masterfully

* The pasta: Start with good, if not fresh, pasta. Look for dried pasta that has been made in Italy. Make your sauce first; pasta should be prepared just before serving it.

* The pot of water: "Pasta, like tango dancers, needs room to move," someone said. Use a large, deep pot, ideally one of those heavy stainless steel beauties, with a thick bottom. Use plenty of water, about 5-6 quarts for each pound of pasta.

* The salt: Salting the water brings out the natural flavor of the pasta. Add about 1 Tbsp of sea salt for each pound of pasta, once the water has started to boil but not too late or it will not be absorbed into the pasta. Let the salt dissolve before adding the pasta.

* Cooking: Drop the pasta into the pot of rapidly boiling water. Don't break the pasta to fit the pot, use a wooden spoon to bend it as it cooks. Cover the pot to hasten heat recovery. After you add pasta to the water, the water ceases to boil. When the water begins boiling again, remove the lid and finish cooking. Stir the pasta often to prevent sticking, especially during the first few minutes when the pasta surface is coated with sticky, glue-like starch but don't add oil. Oil coats the pasta and repels the sauce. One pound of spaghetti takes about 8-10 minutes to cook but check it frequently until it's "al dente." Never overcook pasta - better to slightly undercook it as the pasta will continue cooking for a bit after draining. Never combine two types or sizes of pasta in the same pot of water. Fishing for the one that gets done first is a pain.

* Draining: As soon as the pasta is done, drain it in a colander but do not rinse it. The natural starches of the pasta are released into the cooking water; these starches help the sauce adhere better to the pasta. The only exception to not rinsing is pasta for salads. Then, use cold water to stop your pasta from overcooking. The strands should be glossy with moisture. Also, reserve a glassful of the starchy cooking water to dilute the sauce or bind the pasta with the sauce before serving.

* The sauce and the cheese: Don't over sauce the pasta - allow the flavor of the pasta to stand out. Place the pasta in the pan in which the sauce is cooking and stir well. This method coats the pasta better than spooning the sauce on top.

* Serving: Let the pasta sit, covered, to absorb the sauce for a minute or two, then remove the lid, stir again, and serve instantly. If the recipe calls for grated cheese, add a little before tossing, then serve extra at the table. Only serve pasta hot.

Recipes

Farfalle (bowties) with Peas (serves 4)

1 lb Farfalle

1-1/2 cups frozen baby peas

8 thin slices pancetta

2 oz butter

2 Tbsp each shredded fresh basil and mint

1. Cook the farfalle in a large pan of rapidly boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and return to the pan.

2. While the pasta is cooking, steam microwave or lightly boil the baby peas until just tender and drain.

3. Chop the pancetta and cook in the butter over medium heat for 2 minutes. Toss the butter and pancetta mixture through the pasta with the peas, basil and mint. Season with cracked black pepper and serve.

Fettuccine with Tomatoes, Shrimp and Basil (serves 4 as appetizer)

1/2 cup olive oil

1 lb uncooked, med shrimp, peeled and de-veined

4 large tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1/3 cup sliced pitted black olives

3 large garlic cloves, minced

2 Tbsp minced shallots

Salt, pepper, freshly ground

1 lb fettuccini, freshly cooked

Grated Romano cheese

1. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over med-high heat. Add shrimp, tomatoes, basil olives, garlic and shallots.

2. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until shrimp turn pink, stirring frequently, about 3 minutes.

3. Place pasta in serving bowl. Pour sauce over and toss. Sprinkle with Romano. Serve immediately.

Spinach Mushroom Pasta (serves 4)

8 oz. whole-wheat pasta

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 minced garlic clove

1 lb sliced mushrooms

6 oz. cream cheese

1/2 cup milk

8 cups raw spinach

Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Boil the pasta in 2 quarts water according to package directions; drain and transfer to a platter.

2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan; add the garlic and mushrooms and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

3. Add cream cheese and milk and cook, stirring often, until boiling. Stir in the spinach and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then pour over the pasta. Sprinkle with the chives and serve with the cheese on the side.

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