What's in Season: Winter Pasta
Versatile and Satisfying, Easy or Elaborate
I've been catching up on the latest issues of my favorite cooking magazines. With the exception of Gourmet, whose January issue had a save-this-issue tribute to the late cookbook author Edna Lewis and an inspiring collection of southern-inspired recipes, the others were mostly marked by words like "comfort" and "hearty."
I'm of the mind that food should always be comforting, not just in the winter, but somehow now is when we let ourselves make dishes that need the stove left on for a while. This means slow cooked pot roasts, soups, treats like osso buco (it doesn't have to be made with veal; Giada DeLaurentiis has a version with turkey that's in the FoodTV.com recipe database), warm desserts -- and pasta.
Many winter pastas are baked, as with a classic baked ziti or macaroni and cheese. Others simply combine pasta with hearty sauces. And they're not all Italian: this month's issue of "Food & Wine" magazine featured a "Mexican-Style Chicken with Penne" and "Red Curry Peanut Noodles."
Mary Ann Esposito's 10th cookbook, Ciao Italia Slow and Easy has a chapter on baked pastas and she has let us publish one of her always satisfying and full flavored recipes. "Fusilli With Three Cheeses," is her version of macaroni and cheese with added beef and pork, making it a one-pot meal that could equally be a dish for company or a Sunday night supper. I also think it's a recipe that kids will love and because it's filled with tomato sauce and lots of spinach, it's a way to get vegetables into a fussy eater of any age.
I love Mary Ann's approach to cooking, ingredients and flavors and so I'm pleased to share the second part of our recent conversation with her. In this segment, she defends pasta against the food police and also gives us a list of what belongs in any Italian home cook's pantry.
I suppose that if you ate enough of anything it could make you fat, but pasta gets more than its fair share of critics. I'm not going to advocate what anyone should eat, but for me, it's rare to get through a week without pasta as the centerpiece of a meal. Occasionally I'll cook DeCecco's whole wheat spaghetti tossed with a little olive oil and steamed broccoli florets. But usually I make the white stuff. I've long embraced a tip that Mark Bittman has promoted which is to have more meat and vegetables than pasta; just tip the ratio in favor of the non-pasta ingredients.
I also love pasta's versatility. It can be the go-to meal at the end of a long day when you have little energy and even fewer ingredients on hand. Other days it's a special dish. In addition to Mary Ann's Baked Fusilli, we have two new recipes that might give some diversity to your pasta repertoire: "Baked Pasta with Shrimp, Tomatoes and Feta" is an adaptation of the traditional Greek dish that uses tiny orzo; ours, instead, uses bigger pasta pieces and a heavy-handed portion of shrimp. And City Cook contributing writer David Neibart has shared one of his signature recipes, a classic "Bolognese Ragu" that is a satisfying addition to any spaghetti or linguine.
Pasta Cooking Strategies
- Don't overcook it. The goal is to get to al dente -- to the tooth -- which means the pasta still has some bite and texture. To be safe, I always look at the cooking time printed on the box and subtract a minute. Unless it's Ronzoni pasta, and then I subtract 3 minutes.
- If you're making a baked pasta, even al dente is too much. Instead drain the pasta before it gets to al dente because it will continue to cook while it bakes, becoming more tender as it absorbs moisture from the other ingredients.
- If mozzarella is one of your ingredients, make the effort to buy and use fresh mozzarella. Its high moisture and tenderness will add that squishy, stringy texture that most of us love in baked pasta.
- If you're using grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese, grate it by putting chunks into a food processor and grind it with the steel blade to get a fine, pulverized result. If you use your Microplane rasper to grate the cheese, you'll get soft flakes that will melt quickly which means you won't get that grainy finish that many of us prefer in baked pasta.
- Think about the shape and size of your pasta and how the final dish will come together. All those ridges and interrupted surfaces are meant to catch and hold different types of sauces. For instance, if you have the choice between a ribbed (also called "rigate") or a smooth penne, and your recipe uses a tomato sauce, select the ribbed because it will capture tiny bits of the sauce. Also, if you're adding chunks of other ingredients, such as pieces of chicken or whole shrimp, think about their size in relationship to the size of the pasta. One-inch pieces of chicken or shrimp will be best to eat with ziti or rotini or those smaller rigatoni called "mezzi."
- Travel trivia: there's a quirky museum in Rome that's dedicated to the history of pasta, with a gallery exclusively devoted to hundreds of pasta shapes that the Italians have invented. It's a charming insight into the creative Italian soul -- inspired by food.
- Remember to salt pasta water generously. As I've written here before, pasta should be cooked in water that tastes like the sea. Pasta itself has very little flavor and it will have a better taste if it absorbs salted, rather than unsalted, water as it cooks. If you salt it after it's cooked, the salt will merely sit on its surface.
- Do not add oil to your cooking water. While some argue that adding oil keeps pasta from sticking together when it cooks, it also adds a slick to each piece of pasta, making it hard for the sauce to adhere. If you're worried about the pasta sticking together, just cook it in a larger amount of water and give it a good stir.
- If you're gluten-intolerant but love pasta, you should visit your favorite markets and ask about non-wheat pastas. This is not my area of expertise and every person I've ever known with a food allergy problem is well educated on ingredient alternatives, but I do know that pastas are made from rice and other ingredients instead of wheat.
- Tradition says that if you're making a seafood pasta, do not add cheese. Of course, you can do whatever makes you happy, but this is the Italian way.
In the introduction to their wonderful cookbook, On Top of Spaghetti, Johanne Killeen and George Germon, owners and chefs at the great Al Forno Restaurant in Providence, R.I., write, "don't trust people who don't like pasta." It's as good a guidepost as any in these crazy times.