The Chinese made noodles as far back as 3,000 B.C . An excavation of a fourth century B.C. Etruscan tomb shows drawings of natives making pasta. Pasta has been a staple for Italian families for generations. Marco Polo is credited with bringing pasta to Italy after his exploration of the Far East in the 13th century.
A virtually fat free and salt free food, pasta is low on the Glycemic Index (GI). The Glycemic Index is a ranking of carbohydrates and the effect they have on our blood glucose levels. A low GI carbohydrate is digested more slowly and satisfies hunger longer without increasing blood sugar levels. Pasta is relatively inexpensive to purchase and prepare.
Dried pasta is made using semolina flour, which comes from grinding kernels of durum wheat. Sometimes the semolina is mixed with other flours. It is then mixed with water until it forms sticky dough. Additional ingredients are then added to the pasta, like eggs to make egg noodles, or spinach or tomato to make red or green colored pasta.
The dough is kneaded until it loses its stickiness and is pliable, but not stiff. Then it is fed through a dough sheeter to make flat pasta, like linguini, fettuccini or lasagna noodles. Or, the pasta is pushed, or extruded, through a die, a metal disc with holes in it. The size and shape of the holes in the die determine what the shape of the pasta will be. For instance, dies with round or oval holes will produce solid, long shapes of pasta, such as spaghetti. Sharp blades rotate beneath the die and cut the pasta to the proper length. Afterwards, the pasta is dried for about 5 or 6 hours using large dryers which circulate hot, moist air and then it is packaged for distribution.
On the day that Brandi and I went to the market, we also stopped at a local grocery store so she could buy some baking supplies. I noticed that most of the women in the checkout lines were purchasing several types of dried pasta for what appeared to be a week’s worth of groceries.
Most of the pasta we used in the restaurant kitchen was also dried, except for the ravioli, cannelloni, linguine and fettuccini which we made fresh. One of the shelves above the counter where I usually worked was stacked with packages of the following types and shapes of pasta:
Alfabeto—tiny alphabet letter pasta
Agnolotti—shaped like half moons
Anellini– little rings
Anolini—ravioli in half-moon shape with ruffled edges
Bucatini—long, fat hollow strands like spaghetti
Capelli d’angelo—angel hair pasta; very fine long strands
Castellane—rigid shell shape
Conchigliette- little conch shells
Ditali—small tubes like “thimbles”
Farfalle—bow-tie or butterfly shapes
Fusilli– shaped like a corkscrew
Gnocchetti—small oval dumplings
Mezzi Tubetti—larger hollow tubes
Millerighe– large rigatoni with ribbed sides
Orecchiette—shaped like little “cups” or “ears”
Paccheri– very large tubes
Penne piccolo– small narrow tubes with ends cut on diagonal
Rigatoni—big hollow tubes
Rotini– small corkscrews
Sedanini—thin, hollow tubes
Spellete- little stars
Tagliarini– similar to linguine with a flat side, but thinner
Vermicelli– similar to spaghetti, but thinner
Generally, you should use thinner pastas with thin sauces and thicker shapes with thicker sauces as the sauce will coat the shape and cling to it better. Always cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water to keep it from being sticky. Never add oil to the water or you inhibit the ability of the sauce to cling to the pasta. Also, it is not necessary to drain the pasta after cooking unless you are going to serve it cold in a pasta salad. We never drained the pasta we cooked in the restaurant.
One classic pasta sauces is Bolognese (sometimes referred to as Ragù) which may have originated in Bologna, but has spread throughout much of Central and Northern Italy. It is a rich pasta sauce made primarily from veal, beef, pork, or chicken cut into small pieces. Marinara sauce is made with tomatoes, garlic, onions, parsley and olives but doesn’t use any meat. Another classic sauce is Arrabbiata Sauce which is a spicier tomato sauce made with chile peppers. Alfredo Sauce is composed of heavy cream or half and half mixed with butter, grated parmesan cheese, pepper, and occasionally nutmeg.
Carbonara Sauce is made with cream, eggs, Parmesan cheese, bacon and peas. Madeira sauce is made from Madeira wine and broth. Puttanesca Sauce is made with garlic, bits of dried chile peppers, capers, and anchovies as key ingredients, and Vodka Sauce typically contains tomatoes, cream, vodka, olive oil, garlic, onions, and pecorino or Romano cheese.
Leftover pasta can be tossed in pesto sauce, olive oil and garlic or can be used to make a frittata.