Pasta & Sauce: Equal Partners
Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with pasta. They love the comfort-food aspect of a fragrant, warm bowl of rigatoni; but they hate the idea of the “carb overload” it brings with it (darn that Atkins).
Some Essential Pasta Tips:
In Italy, the quality of the pasta is just as important as what you’re putting on top of it, so the pasta is meant to be lightly coated by a sauce rather than drowned in it. In fact, it is called a condimento in Italy, much like we consider dressing a condiment for salad. When, for example, you have a heavy sauce like Alfredo (butter, cream, cheese)–which, by the way, I have never seen on a menu in Italy–sorry, Olive Garden–the size of your waistline can be attributed much more to the topping than to the pasta.
Italians eat pasta as a first course and not usually as an entrée. Therefore, their portions are smaller because they are leaving room for a second course like meat or fish. Most Americans are aware that our portions generally far outweigh those of our European counterparts. There is a time and place for an all-you-can eat buffet (it’s called Vegas): we need to stop evaluating every meal for its size (i.e. value) instead of for its quality and flavor.
So how can you feel full from a smaller amount of pasta? The first answer is to supplement your meal with vegetables, salad, or a portion of meat or fish. The second answer is that high-quality dry pasta–made with “grano duro,” or “hard grain”–has a certain heft to it that industrial pasta lacks. Try Martelli’s spaghetti and tell us a small portion doesn’t fill you up! Industrial dry pasta is usually made with cheaper soft wheat; it has a light, dull color; it breaks down
easily in water, often splitting toward the end of cooking; and gives the water a cloudy aspect.
A third argument for feeling fuller with a smaller portion of pasta is to always cook it “al dente” (the point where pasta is “to the tooth,” or “just cooked”–not overcooked into a mushy, chewy mess). Digestion starts in the mouth, where chewing and saliva begins the process of breaking down starches. Also, pasta that has undergone a slow drying process (more on this below) breaks down better in your system and keeps you feeling fuller longer. (Cooking tip: Add coarse salt after the water is boiling. And, about 30 seconds before the pasta is done, drain it and return it to the heated stove to mix well with the sauce to coat evenly before serving.)
Good pasta should be able to stand on its own. Is it pleasant with just a little oil and Parmesan cheese? If it’s flaccid and tasteless (provided you added enough salt in the water), it’s time to try something else.
Look for dry (as opposed to fresh, usually made with egg) pasta made with bronze dies (think old-fashioned meat grinder, but for pasta dough). This is the way Italians have been making pasta for eons, but it’s clearly not as profitable as industrial pasta, which can be made from start to finish in half a day. The artisanal extrusion
of pasta through bronze dies creates a rough surface that can better support the sauce, which will “cling” to it.
This is also why you want to avoid pasta that has a smooth sheen or lacks a rough surface. Teflon-coated dies (used for industrial pasta) give a smooth sheen to pasta, which can’t “carry” the sauce. Open the bag of pasta: is it brittle, lightweight, slick, shiny? Poor quality. Or is it sturdy looking, with ridges, a rough surface, and covered in what looks like a light dusting of flour? Jackpot.
A slow drying process is crucial–anywhere from 24 to 76 hours. Industrial pasta makers use high heat to dry the pasta faster, which essentially “bakes” the pasta and the noodles are often brittle or easily broken. And without going into boring nutritional data involving the separation of sugars and proteins, a slow drying process is much better for your digestion and keeps you feeling full longer.
Fresh pasta (egg + tender grain) v. dry pasta (hard grain)? Pasta made with egg, often considered “fresh pasta,” is most popular in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where they are famous for tortellini and lasagne verdi. Pairing egg pasta (instead of dried pasta) with Bolognese meat sauce is like eating English cheddar instead of Kraft cheese–a whole new level of good. Egg makes the pasta dough very elastic and gives it an ability to be rolled very thinly, which is especially crucial for stuffed pasta, like ravioli. Here, grano tenero, or “tender grain” is used, and the egg is a substitute for the fact that there is less gluten in the grain. It is difficult to find a good egg pasta that can be preserved at length like flour pasta. Your best bet is to make egg pasta yourself (if you’re not lucky enough to have a good pasta maker near you, who should be making it so thin you can see through it!). If that’s not an option, try Bionaturae’s tagliatelle or pappardelle, which is carried at some Whole Foods and natural food stores, and is also organic.