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~Pasta - Choose, Portion, Cook, Sauce, Toss & Serve~

IMG_4586The world is full of pasta-bilities.  Our modern marketplaces have supplied all of our demands with hundreds of shapes, sizes, and colors of dried and fresh pasta.  I suppose it is because pasta is relatively quick to cook that many Americans impulsively try to create their own versions of well-known pasta dishes having little or no knowledge of the tried and true, time-honored principles and classic recipe techniques these recipes require.  What's worse, many American restaurants do the same.  Trust me when I say, I'm happy to overlook a slightly over-cooked or over-sauced pasta dish served by a friend who forth their best effor,.  That said, some of the lifeless, lack-luster, overly-sauced, overly-salted pasta dishes served at many restaurants should be outlawed.

#1.  Choosing pasta -- fresh vs. dried & what shape works best.

IMG_4512There are two types of pasta:  dried and fresh. Dried pasta is commercially made using semolina (wheat) and durum flour (wheat).  Fresh pasta is made with flour and eggs.  Both are available in countless shapes and sizes.  Do not fall into the snobbish trap of only eating fresh pasta, or only eating dried pasta, or only eating one shape of pasta.  Each type and shape has a specific purpose and they are usually not interchangeable.  The basic rule for both dried and fresh pasta is:  the more delicate the sauce, the more delicate the pasta.  Dried pasta (spaghetti and penne for example), hold up under the weight of heavy sauces.  Dried pasta shapes are also great for baked casseroles, like mac & cheese or stuffed shells.  Fresh pasta, which breaks more easily, requires a light sauce and/or should be used to to make filled-pasta like tortellini or ravioli.  As with all cooking, there are exceptions to every rule so:  when in doubt, trust the recipe.

As for trendy dried or fresh pasta found colored or flavored with exotic items like squid ink and truffle, simply stated:  for the most part they are a waste of money because flour and the cooking process deaden the expensive flavors.  On the other hand, gourmet pasta that contains herbs like, cracked pepper, basil or rosemary impart lovely flavor into the dish being served, as long as it is chosen to complement the dish being served.  That being said, colored pasta is a lot of fun to serve, especially the colors of the Italian flag:  egg (white), spinach (green), and, tomato (red).

#2.  Portioning pasta -- people eat more than the experts say.

IMG_4010Authorities proclaim that one pound of pasta will produce 4-6 servings, depending upon whether it is served as a starter, entree or side-serving.  I, however, find that realistically, one pound of pasta produces 3-5 servings, and, in the case of thin strands, like angel hair, it is best to plan on one pound of pasta producing just 2-4 servings.  If you are adding meat, seafood or vegetables to the dish, that will, of course, stretch it farther.  It's  amazing to me just how much pasta people eat.

#3A.  Cooking pasta, part 1:  boiling -- get out the big pot.

IMG_4515Pasta needs a large pot filled with enough water so it can move freely.  My general rule for 1-1 1/2 pounds of pasta is:  In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil. When the water reaches a rolling boil, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of sea salt.  Authorities say to add 1 or more tablespoons of salt, but I personally think that is too much -- I want my pasta to be mildly salted, not salty.  Many will tell you to add some oil to the water -- that's just wrong.  Never add oil to the pasta water.  Oil does nothing except enjoy a free ride on top of the water, which sticks to the surface of the pasta when it drains, which in turnprevents the sauce from sticking to the pasta. Once the salted water is boiling, gradually add the pasta to the water, in order to keep the water boiling and the pasta separated.  That said, once all of the pasta has been added, using a large spoon, stir it around until it has softened and is "swimming" freely around under the water.  Next, lower the heat to a steady simmer, as boiling damages even the heartiest pasta.

#3B.  Cooking pasta, part 2:  timing -- it's done when it's done.

IMG_4518Use the cooking instructions on the package combined with a reliable timer as a guideline.  The cooking time will vary with each type and shape of pasta, not to mention how you have the heat under the simmering pasta regulated.  Dried pasta will take considerably longer to cook than freshly made pasta, approximately 8-12 minutes depending upon the shape or thickness, with short pasta taking longer to cook than long, stranded pasta because short pasta is thicker.  Fresh pasta will cook quite quickly, in some cases as quickly as 1-2 minutes, but like dried pasta, shape and thickness will determine the time.  The longer fresh pasta dries, the longer the cooking time. When cooking dried or fresh pasta, be prepared to stand by the stove during the last 1-2 minutes and taste test as often as every 15-30 seconds. -- the difference between perfection and disaster.

IMG_4559Only a fool throws pasta against the wall to test for doneness.  The only test is "al dente", meaning "to the tooth", which means you have to taste it.  Pasta should be slightly resistant, yet cooked through and not soft or mushy.  Pasta continues to cook even after draining, so it is best to remove it from the heat slightly undercooked.  Also keep in mind that if pasta is to be baked after boiling, macaroni and  cheese for example, cook it even less.

#3C.  Cooking pasta, part 3: draining -- get out a colander.

IMG_4522Immediately and gently, transfer cooked pasta from the pot o a large colander -- for delicate or filled-pasta, use a hand-held colander to transfer the pasta into the large colander.   Give the colander a few gentle shakes to drain away all excess water.  Never rinse pasta in water, unless preparing a cold pasta dish, like macaroni salad, in which case it must be rinsed in very cold water to halt the cooking process.  Occasionally a recipe calls for reserved pasta water -- reserve this liquid (+ a bit extra) just prior to draining, then proceed with the recipe as directed.

#4.  Saucing pasta -- be judicious, less is more.

IMG_4547Be sure to have any sauce/and or other ingredients ready/warm and waiting for the pasta to cook, never vice versa.  Do not add all of the sauce at once.  The pasta may not need it, and extra sauce can be served at tableside to suit individual preferences.  A pasta dish that has been perfectly sauced and tossed has no sauce puddled on the plate or in the bottom of the bowl, before or after eating it.  Authentic Italian pasta is never soaked in or over-sauced.  This is typically the biggest mistakes Americans and American restaurants make.  As a guideline, for 12-16 ounces of spaghetti, I use 1-1/2-2 cups of sauce.  Depending upon the recipe or personal preference, consider stirring a bit of finely-grated cheese into the sauce too.  My favorite is Parmigiano-Reggiano and for 12-16-ounces of pasta you'll need about 3-4 tablespoons.  Other favorites of mine are Grana Padano (similar to Parm.-Regg.), Locatelli (Pecorino-Romano), or a well-aged Asiago.  Be sure to use a microplane grater to finely grate the cheese you are adding.

#5.  Tossing pasta -- transforming pasta & sauce into one dish.

IMG_4577Tossing is the step that transforms the sauce and the pasta into a single dish.  Immediately after draining the pasta into the colander, return the hot pasta to the still warm stockpot and place the stockpot on the still warm stovetop.  For every 2 ounces of pasta you have cooked, add 1 tablespoon of salted butter (preferably at room temperature). Give it a gentle but thorough stir, just until the pasta is evenly coated in the melted butter.  Cover and let it sit on stovetop 1-2 minutes, to allow the pasta time to absorb all of the butter.  The butter is going to impart rich flavor to your pasta (instead of just getting it from overly salted water) and it is actually going to encourage the sauce to stick to each buttery strand or piece of pasta.  My buttering trick complements any sauce you plan to add -- it is also why I am constantly asked why my pasta tastes better than everyones.  Add the sauce to the buttered pasta and toss until every piece or strand is enrobed.

Note:  If my "coat the hot pasta in butter" tip has you rolling your eyes or about to leave me a nasty comment, this is where we should part ways.  If you haven't tried it, you can't begin to understand, and, I could care less if you, your mama or your entire family hails from Italy.

IMG_4567 IMG_4571 IMG_4575To toss, use either two spoons or two forks, or, a pair of tongs -- I find that two spoons or two forks work best for short pasta (like penne and rigatoni), and tongs work best for stranded pasta (like linguini and spaghetti).

#6.  Serving pasta -- family-style vs. individual servings. 

IMG_4583 2Once the pasta is tossed, it is time to serve it.  There are two options. Family-style:  transfer pasta to a large, warmed serving platter; Individual portions:  transfer pasta to warmed, shallow pasta bowls. When serving individual portions, use tongs.  Twirl the pasta, to make it look like a bird's nest in the center of each bowl.  In either case, a wedge of cheese and a microplane cheese grater should be on the table -- along with any additional sauce for those who desire some. Always remember, from the minute the pasta is cooked, there is no time for pause or delay.

Would you like my recipe for meatballs with that?

6a0120a8551282970b02942f995e04200c-800wiChoosing, Portioning, Cooking & Saucing Pasta:  Recipe yields instructions to cook and sauce perfect pasta every time.

Special Equipment List:  8-quart stockpot w/lid (or stockpot sized appropriately for how much pasta is being cooked); colander; two large spoons or two large forks, or, a pair of tongs; microplane grater

6a0120a8551282970b027880115bbf200dCook's Note:  Even those of us who can and do make ravioli from scratch, don't typically serve them for a family-friendly weeknight meal. Why?  Making ravioli from scratch is a lot of work.  That's why these one-to-two-bite labors-of-love are usually reserved for holidays and celebrations. That said, high-quality store-bought ravioli can be found in the average grocery store.  Rana is my go-to brand, and, you won't find them in the frozen food aisle -- they're found in the refrigerated section where fresh pasta is sold.  When paired with an easy-to-make-from-scratch sauce, ravioli can be added to every pasta-loving family's weeknight meal rotation:  Try these three sauces!

"We are all in this food world together.: ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2022)


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