Today (October 17th) is National Pasta Day in the U.S. In honor of pasta, one of my favorite foods, here are my answers to several pasta myths and my 5 top pasta tips. Wednesday, I’ll head into a few of my favorite ways to use Italian-style pasta. If you’re a fan of Jerusalem (or Israeli) cous cous – a pasta, not a grain – or lo mein, those will get equal time at a future date. But this week I’m into cooking Italian pastas.
Pasta myths – and the truth about pasta
Myth: Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China.
Reality: It’s true that the Chinese had pasta at least as early as 1100 B.C. But according to noted food writer Charles Perry, the first Western reference to boiled noodles is a 5th Century A.D debate in the Jerusalem Talmud, written in Aramaic, on whether noodles violate Jewish dietary laws. By the 10th century A.D. Aramaic had words to distinguish fresh noodles from dried ones and by there is a 12th Century A.D. report describing Sicilians making noodles. Keep in mind that Marco Polo didn’t return from China until 1295. All this and more in a fascinating 1986 article by another food writer, Corby Kummer.
Myth: You need to cook pasta in a lot of boiling water.
Reality: Although most cookbooks and pasta box directions suggest using 4-6 quarts of boiling water per pound of pasta, food chemist Harold McGee has shown that you can use much less water – maybe as little as 1 ½ – 2 quarts per pound. He has even cooked pasta by putting it in cold water! See both his article and video on cooking pasta. By the way, the suggestion that you cook pasta “al dente” means cook the pasta only until it is slightly firm. It goes from crisp to slightly firm to mushy in just a few minutes. Test pasta frequently it as it cooks by taking out a stand or piece with a slotted spoon. Don’t let pasta overcook!
Myth: All dried pasta is the same.
Reality: The best dried pasta is made from 100% durum wheat, called semolina. Durum semolina is harder than the wheat typically used for bread or other foods. Pasta and macaroni products that contain softer types of wheat, sometimes known as farina, tend to get soggy. And no matter what you put on mushy noodles, they just arent’ very good. Even among 100% semolina products, there are gradations, but that’s a story for another day.
Pasta tip #1 – Add the pasta all at once to the water. If pasta strands don’t fit comfortably in the pot, they will soften and you can quickly fold them into the water. Letting parts of the strands stay dry for more than a few moments will result in unevenly cooked pasta.
Pasta tip #2 – Don’t rinse the pasta when it is done. That takes good stuff off it and cools it down. Instead, immediately take it out of the water by pouring it through a colander or taking it out of the water with tongs (if it is long strands) or a slotted spoon (if it is some other shape.)
Pasta tip #3 – Don’t throw out the pasta water. If your sauce is too thick, add a bit of the water the pasta cooked in to thin the sauce to the right consistency. Pasta water is tasty and much better to use than “regular” water. Or for a light pasta topping, add vegetables sautéed in olive oil, a bit of pasta water and top with grated cheese.
Pasta tip #4 – Warm the bowl first. If you put hot pasta in a cold bowl, it will cool down to room temperature quickly. Pre-heat the bowl and you’ll enjoy hot pasta. If you add a couple of extra ladles of water to the pasta water, after it boils, you can ladle the extra water into the bowl a minute or 2 before the pasta is done. That way, the bowl warms as the pasta cooks and the water in the bowl doesn’t have time to cool down before the pasta is done.
Pasta tip #5 – Don’t overwhelm the pasta with sauce. Once the pasta is cooked and in the bowl, add a bit of sauce to keep it from sticking. You don’t need heavy pasta sauce if the pasta is great, or even good. In fact, some of my favorite sauces are light – they dress the pasta instead of drowning it.