Pasta, pasta and more Pasta
Where would Italian cuisine be without the timeless classic pasta? I can’t think of a more versatile base of a dish, from all the different cuts, textures, and appearances. I honestly don’t know what my dinner table would look like without it.
Ever since I was a little girl, pasta was always on the menu. No matter what the season, no matter the theme, if there wasn’t pasta it wasn’t a meal. It could pair with just about anything my mother made, it was extremely filling for the average hard working Italian family, and above all, it was CHEAP! I remember helping my mother roll out flour in all different shapes, depending on what sauce she was making. As I got a little older and became more exposed to “gourmet” foods, I came to see that what I was eating at the dinner table every night was becoming more and more in popular demand to the culinary world.
Today you walk down the aisles of a supermarket, or a gourmet store like Grace’s Marketplace, and how many different brands, cuts, colors, and price ranges of pasta do you see? There are hundreds…so many that even I get lost every once in a while. But whenever I get a little overwhelmed, I just take a step back and immediately bring it back to basics. From the creation to the cooking process, so many different elements come into play when choosing the right pasta. Do I want traditional or whole wheat? What about an egg noodle? And what about those crazy colored and shaped pastas that are triple the price for half a pound? Here are some of the things that I have taken with me throughout all my years in the kitchen…
First let’s start with the basis of the pasta, its only flour, water, and a little finesse. The majority of pasta I have seen are made with Durham wheat. Now even though a lot of pastas are made with this base, it is the machinery and the process that creates different levels of quality. When the pasta is made up of finely processed wheat, and created with bronze-based machinery, that is when the product is at its utmost quality, and of course on the pricier side. These finer pastas are usually paired with lighter sauces, and make a phenomenal presentation, such as a Fernando Pansato or Cipriani. They also have a much shorter cook time.
And how could I forget this new craze with whole wheat pasta… My take on changing the overall chemistry of a good cut of pasta is; it doesn’t hurt any of us to become a little more health conscious. Is the taste and texture different? Yes. Does it alter the dish in anyway? Not really. But does it make all of us feel a little less guilty for enjoying our favorite traditional dishes? You better believe it. Then there are your alternative egg based pastas, which tend to be much richer. The egg pastas are always much heavier because their binding agent has a much greater density than the traditional wheat. I rarely ever use them because I personally don’t like the consistency. But then again, everything is preference.
So now I know what kind of flavor I want, and what kind of dish I’m prepping for, but I have to pick the cut of pasta? I have no idea when all these different shapes, lengths, colors, and crazy combinations of all three flooded the market! When I was young, everything was simple and easy; and if you didn’t find what you were looking for within the ten choices, my mother went home and made it herself. When picking a specific cut, I go back to what sauce I am going to dress the pasta with. Believe me it makes all the difference in the world. Pasta with indentations, grooves, or any type of curving shape are best for thicker sauces. These types of noodles grip the sauce, absorbing all of its savory, hearty flavor. Smoother cuts, such as round and thicker noodles are used for lighter sauces because they are intended to be dressed rather than act as little scooping tools. The miniature cuts of pasta, like orzo or pastina, are used in soups mainly because of their size. They are extremely easy to cook; just throw it in while the soup is cooking. It acts as a thickening/filling agent for your soup, as well as being easy to scoop up with any spoon.
When I take all these factors into considering, the brand that stands out above the rest for my tastes is Montebello. It’s an organic pasta company, for those of you who place that in high regard. It consistently cooks thoroughly, and never sticks to the side of the pot or sticks together. It doesn’t have a doughy consistency, and absorbs the flavor of any sauce I top it with. Montebello is small producer in comparison to your Barilla or DeCecco types; which I think shows they put more care and effort into their product. From the packaging to the presentation, Montebello gives off a very rustic, artisanal presence. It completely reminds me of the pasta I used to make with my mother. I just get this homemade feeling, without a fraction of the labor. Absolutely fantastic!
I guess what it all comes down to is preference. My daughter Maria, who is the executive chef of the store, cooks pasta according to her taste rather than technique or recipes. Of course there are methods, but it all comes down to what you and the mouths you are feeding enjoy. I cannot believe how far pasta has come in the market today. There is always a new shape, an emerging trend, something different to try and taste. However, the one fact that remains unwavering is the tradition in the cuisine. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason, there is no method to the madness, we all just follow what we have been taught. One thing I know for sure; what was once old in Italy, has become new again.
Posted on 3/11/2012 at 5:15:00 AM