Food television has exploded in recent years, producing shows about celebrity chefs, famous restaurants and even shows about things we would never dare eat, let alone cook at home. One constant during that time has been Mary Ann Esposito, the warm and welcoming host of America’s longest-running cooking show, Ciao Italia. We caught up with Mary Ann this week for a quick Q&A for our Pasta Month series.
As a trusted authority on all foods Italian, Mary Ann dishes out on her kitchen inspirations, evading the “pasta police” and just what to do with pre-grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Toque Tips: You are very engaged with your viewers and readers. What are the most frequent questions you receive about pasta?
Mary Ann: The most frequently asked question I get by far is, “What does al dente mean?” Al dente literally translates to the tooth, but that tells an inexperienced cook nothing. What it means is that pasta is cooked correctly when you can fish a strand out of the cooking water, break it in half and see that there is no raw uncooked white flour present. It should still be firm and not mushy or collapsed on itself. It should hold its shape.
TT: What, do you think, might encourage more people to make and eat more pasta?
MA: The pasta police give it a bad rap here in the U.S., but if more people ate it in smaller portions like the Italians do, I think more people would realize that it is a versatile, healthy food if consumed in moderation and mixed with healthy, non-cream based sauces. I’ve also started using more whole wheat pasta, and it is a great alternative to regular wheat pasta.
TT: Fresh pasta is such a departure from boxed pastas… but do you think boxed pastas have a place in the kitchen?
MA: Absolutely! There are many, many imported dried pastas from Italy that are superior products. Lets not kid ourselves; in the rushed lifestyle of most people, making pasta is something that would be done for a special occasion. And that is fine. But for everyday, reach for a good box.
TT: What are your favorite pasta shapes, and why?
MA: I love farfalle, fusilli and orecchiette because their shapes provide crevices where sauce can be trapped. Plus I like a chewier texture that short cuts of pasta like these provide.
TT: Do you prefer to cook fresh pasta right away, or do you store it before cooking?
MA: I do both. Once dried, fresh pasta can be stored for a long time because there is no moisture left to create bacteria.
TT: How much inspiration is drawn from your Italian grandmothers and aunts for your dishes, and how you cook?
MA: Lots of inspiration; there are just some family traditions that can never be broken — nor should they be broken! I have included many of these classic family recipes in my new book entitled Ciao Italia Family Classics, which will be published October 25, 2011.
TT: When was the last time you bought pre-grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese? (Now be honest.)
MA: Well you can read one of my latest blog posts for the answer to this question. I NEVER buy pre-grated cheese of any sort and have spent good deal of time through my series educating people as to why Parmigiano Reggiano should always be purchased in a wedge.
TT: If you could have dinner with 3 chefs/cooks/food personalities, from any point in history, who would you pick?
Our thanks to Mary Ann for taking time to talk with us.
Come back next week for our final Pasta Month installment, when we sample Cavatelli (prepared in a rich mushroom thyme sauce) and look ahead to the rest of the fall season at Fante’s!