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What you need to know about pasta

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The convenience and versatility of pasta has contributed to its popularity, says home economist Freda Molamphy, as many of us are working longer and later hours and are looking for speedy and simple to prepare meals.

Pasta is quite nutritious as it offers starchy carbohydrate, protein, (especially egg pasta), B vitamins, Iron and Folic Acid. In itself, pasta is not a fattening food – it is the accompanying sauces that contributes the additional calories.

What is pasta?
Pasta is basically a mixture of water and semolina which is made from grinding kernels of good quality, hard, durum wheat. Its this robust durum wheat that helps pasta retain its structure and shape when cooked. Always look for this wheat listed on the pack as an ingredient when purchasing pasta.

Pasta can also be coloured and flavoured with the addition of a variety of ingredients at the manufacturing stage i.e. eggs, spinach, tomato puree, red pepper puree, chilli, shellfish stock, mushrooms, truffles and squid ink. These speciality pastas are best served with a complementary sauce or a very simple drizzle of oil or butter as their flavour can be quite strong.

For those that love pasta but cannot digest wheat or gluten, corn, spelt and buckwheat pasta and noodles are now widely available but these varieties need to be cooked according to instructions as they lack the robust structure of the durum wheat.

How to cook pasta
– Pasta should be boiled in lots and lots of boiling, salted water.

– There is no need to add oil to the water, its the large quantity of rapidly boiling water that helps to prevent the pasta from clumping together.

– Add the pasta to the water and stir.

– Continue to cook at a “rolling boil” until the pasta is still quite firm to the bite i.e Al Dente.

– If cooking pasta for a dish which needs further cooking, boil for only 2/3 of the cooking time indicated on the pack. This will help to retain the texture and shape of the pasta.

– Reserve some of the cooking liquid to moisten the pasta when adding to the accompanying sauce.

– Pasta should be rinsed only if being used in cold dishes or salads. Cold, cooked pasta can be kept for 3-5 days in the fridge, coated in a little olive oil.

Pasta and Sauces

Different pasta shapes have an affinity for different sauces.

– Thin, delicate pasta shapes such as vermicelli, linguini, angel hair pasta and spaghettini (thin spaghetti) are all complimented by light, thin sauces such as a thin cream or seafood sauce or a simple oil and butter dressing.

Spaghetti, Buccatini, Fettucini and Tagliatelle are better with chunkier, slightly thicker sauces such as a ragu bolognese, tuna sauce or a chunky tomato sauce.

– Small, chunky pasta shapes such as penne, gemilli, (twins) cavatappi (corkscrews) casarecce (twisted tubes) are all ideal with chunky meat, cream and vegetable sauces.

– The larger pasta shapes like jumbo shells are great filled with ricotta cheese, meats or vegetable purees and baked in either a tomato or cream sauce.

– Small shapes such as Macaroni, Manicotti (small muffs) and Orecchiette (little ears) are best in soups, casseroles or in baked pasta dishes such as the ever-popular Macaroni Cheese.

– Filled pasta shapes are also popular and make a meal in themselves. Cheese and meat filled ravioli and tortellini are best served with a simple butter, oil, tomato or pesto sauce that compliment the flavour and texture of the pasta shape.

Serving Suggestions

Good quality fresh or dried pasta needs little to make a delicious and satisfying meal. Summer time is ideal for experimenting with light, fresh ingredients than require little or no cooking.

To freshly cooked spaghetti add:

– A glug of your best quality extra virgin olive oil, a clove of crushed garlic and lots of freshly grated parmesan

– Olive oil, quartered, summer-sweet cherry tomatoes, torn fresh basil and grated pecorino romano cheese

– Chopped sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, torn basil and olive oil.

– 2-3 anchovies quickly softened in good quality olive oil , crushed garlic and chopped black olives

– Roasted and puréed red peppers

– Fresh basil or rocket pesto

– Truffle oil and shaved white or black truffle – the ultimate indulgence.

– Pure Irish salted butter and Parmesan – nothing more.

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