Positively Pasta!Posted: September 30, 2011
-Testing and showing off our new Fante’s line of pasta utensils, including the Fante’s Pasta Machine.
-Sharing our favorite family pasta recipes.
-In-store demonstrations of a wide array of pasta items.
This week, we wanted to start off with some pasta basics and answer some frequently asked questions to clear up some commonly held misconceptions about one of our favorite foods.
First, while we certainly want to provide a good starting guide for pasta basics, this shouldn’t be construed as a definitive guide for all things pasta. From its beginnings, pasta has emigrated with its creators, recipes have been tweaked and handed down, and altered to suit nationality and the intricacies of respective cooking styles.
Who “invented” pasta? As impossible of a question as that is to answer, popular legend never ceases to assign credit, regardless of fact. We won’t delve into the various stories of Greek gods inventing the first pasta machine, or of Marco Polo importing pasta from the Chinese. Our mission? To highlight our favorite, time-tested basic recipes and build from there, and show that, when it comes to pasta, you should think outside the box.
Frequently, and deliciously, asked pasta questions:
Is pasta “bad” for you?
In short, no. If eaten in moderation, pasta can be a great source of healthy grains. However, Americanized portion sizes have tossed moderation out the window. Contrary to popular belief, pasta does have some health benefits. According to the National Pasta Association, “Carbohydrates like pasta provide glucose, the crucial fuel for your brain and muscles. Pasta is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, which provide a slow release of energy. Unlike simple sugars that offer a quick, yet fleeting boost of energy, pasta helps sustain energy.” Pasta is generally low in sodium, very much so if you make your own from scratch and can control the addition, or subtraction, of salt.
How do you store pasta?
With storage, what you are storing is as important as how you store it. For example, egg noodles as seen in most grocery stores are not the same as fresh pasta dough made at home with eggs. Egg noodles, like many dry, boxed pastas, are made with pasteurized egg powders (and some with preservatives) to extend their shelf lives. Many fresh pasta doughs made at home feature eggs, and either All Purpose or Semolina flours, or some combination of the two.
One of the main ideas behind utilizing fresh pasta is to cook it immediately, making storage a moot point. However, some occasions do call for storage, like preparing bulk amounts ahead of time for later use. For this, we recommend drying in a cool, dry place, followed by freezing. This is helpful for filled pastas, which are often full of dairy that needs to be refrigerated, anyway.
Another key is flour: it ‘s your friend! Flour your pasta liberally before drying to ensure strands (or whatever shape you made) don’t stick together. Let dry for about 30 minutes before freezing, and it can be kept frozen for about 2 weeks.
Is there a reason for the shapes and how they are cut?
While each pasta shape has a unique story behind it, there is a general reasoning to how pasta is formed. With many pastas, you would start with extruded (think ziti) versus cut (think fettuccine). Pasta machines roll sheets of dough, and allow the user to slice through the sheet to produce strands (cut) or roll over a chitarra (you’ll read more about that method, below). Extruded pastas are where a dough mixture is pushed through a die, giving a tubular shape.
Some versions of extruded pastas can be made by hand, like Garganelli, which we’ll feature here in a few weeks. The same can be said for versions of rolled pastas, like spaghetti. However, you’ll never get that circular shape with rolled pastas that you can get with an extruder, and vice versa.
In general, any pasta with a ridge or other rough surface will hold sauce much better than a smoother vessel. Also, some perform better as part of a baked dish (like simple elbow macaroni) and some as part of a hearty sauce.
The best part is, there are no hard-and-fast rules for pasta. While the above suggestions are great, they’re just that: suggestions. Pasta is a great canvas to create whatever culinary ideas you may have. Its accessibility and ease of use makes it a great first time kitchen experiment, too. As long as you’re not afraid of a little flour!
Speaking of flour, we had a tasty recipe to share this week, too.
We wanted to start off with something simple, delicious and debated. There may be no other pasta dish that fits the bill better than Cacia e Pepe. Literally “cheese and pepper”, this simple Roman dish represents the very best of any style of cooking. When it’s done well, it is savory and elemental. Our version was created with our chitarra pasta maker, which cuts the dough differently from a machine, allowing the noodle to soak up more sauce. Since the sauce here is all black pepper and freshly grated Pecorino Romano. (Actually, we also like the black pepper-studded Pecornio Pepato, but our cheese monger was all out!). The other secret ingredient? Pasta water…
This is one of those dishes where we actually recommend boxed pasta. Dry pastas need to be cooked longer, and as a result, release more starch into the cooking liquid. This starch is vital to the eventual final product. It acts as a hearty binding agent for the salty, sheep-y Pecorino Romano and the fragrant bite of the freshly cracked black pepper.
Could something like fresh pasta dough act in a similar fashion? Not likely. We tried the Cacia e Pepe with our chitarra, and the results just weren’t the same. The main feature of the chitarra is that the dough sheet is forced over strings when cut, making the end noodle more of a sponge for sauce. This sounds great for this dish. However, since fresh pasta cooks at a fraction of the time, we didn’t have the same effect with the pasta water and, thus, had a add a fat (a big no-no in this dish!).
Your first step is to find the absolute best dried pasta you can find. Skip the store brand boxes for 99 cents. Since you can count the ingredients on one hand, splurging for better dried pasta is critical.
The same goes for cheese. Don’t skimp and settle on pre-grated buckets of nebulous “Romano” cheese. Instead, have a conversation with your “cheese guy”. Traditionally, Pecorino Romano, the famously misused sheep’s milk cheese of Roman descent, is used in this dish. It has a distinct saltiness that plays perfectly with the pepper. Don’t be misled by similarly named, but completely different, cheeses like Pecorino Toscano (Tuscan) or Pecornio Sardo (Sardinian).
The rest, well, is dinner time bliss:
Cacia e Pepe
- Kosher salt
- 8 oz. pasta (such as bucatini or spaghetti)
- 1 1/3 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper (more if you’re pepper crazy)
- 1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano (see above)
Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a 5-qt. pot. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup pasta cooking water.
Add reserved pasta water to skillet and bring to a simmer. Add pasta and reduce heat to low and about half of the cheese stirring and tossing with tongs until melted. Remove pan from heat; add rest of the Pecorino and pepper, stirring and tossing until cheese melts, sauce coats the pasta, and pasta is al dente. (Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry.) Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.
Stay tuned for next week, when we explore Corzetti, a unique “stamped” pasta, and a great deconstructed sauce to serve with them. Yum!