That's Amore! - Pasta and Sauces - Story and Photography By Lori Ross
I confess to a lifetime passion for pasta and noodles for which I readily blame my mother. As a newlywed, she and my dad lived in an apartment near an Italian woman who'd immigrated from Naples, who taught my mom how to make from scratch the wonderful spicy, rich tomato sauce she served over spaghetti - sometimes with meatballs. This became a weekly family treat at my home, one for which my friends would clamor for invitations; they knew my mother would never tolerate a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli or Spaghetti-Os anywhere on the premises.
I learned to make the same spicy sauce, and my husband became a fan. When Jim and I had our first boat in Connecticut, more than 20 years ago, pasta was a regular meal on cruises. It was cheap, tasty, filling, easy to store and make aboard. Later, as we started cruising farther a field, and racing, pasta became our favorite emergency ration, comfort food, and a favorite of the crew.
As I started entertaining aboard and at home, I sought out pasta and noodle recipes that would hold up to an hour or so at a buffet in cooler weather: meat and seafood lasagna, macaroni and cheese, pasta with pesto or pasta with oil and broccoli. In hotter weather the best choices became: cold Chinese noodles, Vietnamese rice noodle salads and pasta with fresh tomato sauces.
PASTA THROUGH THE AGES
In Italy, an Etruscan tomb from the 4th century B.C. shows people making what appears to be pasta. The Chinese were making a noodle-like food as early as 3000 B.C. Pasta made its way to the New World through the British, who discovered it while touring Italy. Colonists brought to America the English practice of cooking noodles at least one half hour, then smothering it with cream sauce and cheese. But it was Thomas Jefferson who's credited with bringing the first "macaroni" machine to America in 1789, when he returned home after serving as ambassador to France. From China has come pasta made with soft wheat flour, often served in broth with fresh vegetables, finely sliced meat, or chunks of fish or shellfish. Pastasciutta, the Italian style of pasta, is normally made with harder durum wheat (semolina). Germany and Central Europe have brought us more delicate egg noodles and spaetzle.
Spaghetti's popularity in the United States increased with the immigration of people from southern Italy in the 1920s, and was spurred by Prohibition, where the only places a glass of wine could be swallowed, more or less legally in this country, were the Italian speakeasies that all served spaghetti. Pasta and noodles have gone in and out of dietary favor in America several times in the past few decades. In the 70s, the Scarsdale diet promoted high-protein foods and banned carb-filled grain products. Then, in the 80s, the Duke University, Pritikin and Cooper Clinic programs popularized the low-fat, high-carb diets. The cycle continues today as the Atkins versus Mediterranean diets compete for the hearts and waistlines of Americans.
Pasta can be made from any number of different flours, starches, and beans. Popular Asian noodles include: cellophane or bean-thread noodles made from mung-bean starch; rice noodles made from rice flour; Japanese soba made from buckwheat flour; Japanese somen and udon made from wheat flour: Chinese noodles made from wheat. Central and Northern European egg noodles and spaetzle is made of wheat flour. Italian pasta is almost always made from semolina, a ground hard durum wheat flour that helps pastas retain their shape and firmness while cooking.
There are about 150 major varieties of pasta, cut in every imaginable shape. Some of the most imaginative are agnoletti (priests' caps); conchiglie (conch shells); farfalle (butterflies); ziti (bridegrooms); linguine (little tongues); lumache (snail shells) and capelli dâ angelo (angel hair). Uncooked, dry pasta can be stored in a cool, dry cupboard for up to one year. Use packages you've had longest before opening new. Fresh pasta should be used within three or four days, or frozen uncooked for later use.
COOKING PASTA AND SERVING HOT
Most dried pasta doubles in volume when cooked. The general rule is one pound of dry pasta or freshly made pasta serves six as an appetizer or four as a main course. Cook's Illustrated Test Kitchen offers the following guidance for cooking: Use 2 quarts (8 cups) of water for up to 1/2 pound of pasta, 4 quarts for 1/2 to 1 pound of pasta. After the water comes to a full roiling boil, add salt (a generous 1 1/2 tsps per half pound of pasta; most of the salt goes down the drain with the cooking water), and then the pasta. Stir several times to separate strands and, if necessary, bend long noodles to submerge them quickly. Use a spoon to push hot water over ends, then cover the pot until water just returns to a boil.
Package cooking times are simply guidelines. Fresh pasta cooks in as little as 2-3 minutes. Dry thin pasta (such as Asian noodles, and angel-hair) may cook in as little as 5 minutes. Test for doneness after about 4 minutes by tasting it. Begin tasting after four or five minutes, especially when preparing thin noodles such as spaghettini. Keep checking the pasta every minute or so from then on. Just before the noodles have reached al dente, meaning they still have some chewiness, but the center is no longer hard or gummy, remove the pot from the heat and drain the pasta. Pasta continues cooking after it's drained, so compensate by draining when it's a little underdone.
Pour pasta into a colander, allow the cooking water to flow out, and then shake the pasta once or twice to remove excess liquid. The small amount of cooking water remaining on the pasta helps to spread the sauce and is especially useful when tossing pasta with relatively dry oil-based sauces.
COOKING PASTA FOR BAKING
Pasta in baked dishes should boil less time than normal because it's cooked twice -- boiled first, then combined with other ingredients and cooked in the oven. Boil until just flexible but still quite firm (usually about a 1/3 of the normal cooking time). To test, cut into a piece. Drain, do not rinse, and add to the recipe quickly. Aboard Seaworthy, I always use no-boil lasagna noodles for their superior texture. Traditional noodles that are boiled, drained then baked make the dish watery, while using raw traditional noodles sometimes results in gummy lasagna.
COOKING PASTA FOR COLD DISHES
Cook the pasta as usual, being particularly careful to cook it only until al dente. Drain, rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking, and again drain thoroughly. Toss with a couple tsps of oil so it won’t stick together and let pasta cool. Pasta can be stored in a plastic bag or in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for up to three days until you are ready to serve it.
The best pastas for microwaving are the medium-sized individual shapes, such as penne, ziti, rigatoni, rotelli, fusilli, bow ties, seashells, gnocchi, mostaccioli, radiatore, and so on. Very small dried pastas such as orzo and alphabets become very soft and gummy, as do long, thin pastas such as spaghetti and linguini. Most dried pasta cooks in 10-11 minutes. Take note of your results and use them for future reference and variation.
Place 2 quarts hottest possible tap water in a very large microwaveable bowl and microwave on High, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Very carefully add 1 pound of pasta to the nearly boiling water. Return to center of the oven and microwave for 2 minutes if fresh, 10 to 11 minutes if dried. Drain, mix with sauve and serve.
SAUCES FOR PASTA
It's best to match the shapes of pasta to the sauce. As a general rule, you should be able to eat the pasta and sauce easily in each mouthful. This means that the texture and consistency of the sauce should work with the pasta shape. Thin pastas are best with smooth creamy sauces or oiled based sauces. Short tubular or molded pasta shapes do an excellent job of trapping chunkier sauces. In general, wider noodles, such as fettuccine or trenette, can more easily support ground sauces like pestos and sauces with very large chunks are best with shells, rigatoni, or other large tubes.. Never over-sauce pasta. Italians complain that Americans drown their pasta in too much sauce. The Italian way is to toss pasta with just enough sauce to coat it without leaving a big puddle on the bottom of the plate.
STORING COOKED PASTA AND REHEATING
Refrigerate cooked pasta in an airtight container for up to 3 to 5 days. Add a little oil (1-2 tsp. for each pound of cooked pasta) to help keep it from sticking. Cooked pasta will continue to absorb flavors and oils from sauces, so store cooked pasta separately from sauce. The best pasta shapes for freezing are those used in baked recipes, such as lasagne, jumbo shells, ziti, and manicotti. Prepare the recipe and freeze it before baking for better results. To bake, thaw the dish to room temperature and bake as the recipe directs.
To reheat: Microwave the pasta in the storage container on HIGH for 1 to 3 minutes, tossing the pasta halfway through. The length of time in the microwave depends on how much pasta you have. Reheat the pasta by putting it in a colander and running very hot water over it. Drain the pasta well before adding sauce.
There are four simple sauce recipes that form the base for the most well known sauces of Italian cuisine. They include: Cream and Cheese sauce, Olive oil sauce; Tomato Sauce and Uncooked Sauces . In the recipes that follow, I have provided these simple recipes with a few variations and appropriate pastas to each to get your creative juices flowing.
Basic Cream and Cheese Sauce:
For 1 lb. pasta:
8 oz. heavy cream
2 ½ cups parmesan, gorgonzola or other cheese
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
Heat cream and cheese gently until cheese melts; add salt and pepper to taste. If too thick, add a Tbsp pasta water or if too thin, add more cheese. Add shelled shrimp, scallops or lobster for a special treat.
Pasta Primavera: To the basic cream sauce add 3 cups mixed cooked vegetables cut into bite sized pieces such as: peas, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, zucchini, fresh beans.
Pasta Noci: Top cream sauce with 1 cup toasted walnuts, pine nuts or other favorite nuts
Rigatoni Aurora: Add 1 cup thick tomato sauce to cream sauce.
Macaroni and Cheese: Replace parmesan withcheddar and use macaroni. Mix and place in oven-safe casserole topped with 8 Tbsps of breadcrumbs and dot with 3 Tbsps butter. Bake in 400 oven for 10 minutes until top is crusty.
Spaghetti Olio (Olive oil sauce)
For 1 lb. pasta:
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp chopped parsley leaves
2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp salt
Combine oil with salt, parsley, lemon juice, and 2 tbsps pasta cooking water in a skillet, heat gently. Toss well with drain pasta. Serve immediately; sprinkling individual bowls with portion of Parmesan and fresh ground pepper, if desired.
Primavera: Adding 3 cups chopped cooked vegetables such as artichokes, spring onions, broccoli, zucchini or asparagus to recipe above makes an easy and simple dish.
Al Aglio, Olio e Peperoncini: Add 1/4 cup minced garlic and 3/4 tsp red pepper flakes to oil and heat gently until garlic in golden. Toss with pasta and pass the Parmesan.
Broccoli Al Aglio, Olio: add 1 ½ lb. broccoli florets to sauce above oil and cook until broccoli is tender. .
Pasta alle Vongole: Add 2-3 lbs of small steamed clams or mussels (with or without shell) to oil, garlic and red pepper until warmed. Top with parsley.
Basil pesto: Omit parsley and lemon juice from olive oil sauce. Grind in a food processor: 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (or substitute almonds or walnuts); 3 medium cloves garlic, 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves. Add 7 tbsps olive oil, and cheese and salt. Toss with drained pasta and a 3 tbsps of warm pasta water.(Try parsley, cilantro or sage instead of basil!)
Pomodoro (Simple Tomato sauce)
For 1 lb. of pasta or Makes about 2 cups.
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
2 - 3 leaves fresh shredded basil or 1/2 tsp dried basil
Mix tomatoes with tomato paste. Simmer, uncovered, until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, about 25 – 35 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper; just before serving, stir in basil and oil. Toss with pasta and pass the grated cheese.
My Mother’s Sauce –Sautee 1 medium chopped onion and 2 cloves minced garlic in 1 Tbsp oil for 5 minutes, then proceed with basic sauce recipe using the same pot in which you sautéed onion and garlic. Add 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or more to taste) for last 10 minutes of cooking.
Amatriciana – Sautee7 oz. chopped bacon or pancetta with the onion and garlic then proceed with Mother’s sauce, adding ½ cup red wine to sauce and paste. Omit red pepper.
Penne Arrabiata – Add 1 tsp crushed red pepper and 2 Tbsps minced parsley to simple sauce recipe 5 minutes before serving.
Spaghetti Norma – Sauté 3 medium cubed eggplants in 6 Tbsps of olive oil until nicely browned, and then add to cooked simple sauce.
Spaghetti Puttanesca – Sauté 3 cloves minced garlic, 3 chopped anchovies, 1 cup pitted black olives and 4 Tbsps capers in 2 Tbsps oil and proceed with recipe for simple sauce.
Tagliatelle Bolognese –Sautee 1 lb. ground meat (e.g. mixture of pork, veal or beef) and ½ lb. chopped bacon or pancetta in 2 Tbsps olive oil until browned. Proceed with simple sauce recipe adding 1 cup red wine and 1 cup of beef or chicken stock. Simmer for 30-40 minutes or until thickened, take off heat and stir in 5 Tbsps of heavy cream and 2 Tbsps butter and serve.
Uncooked Fresh Tomato Sauce:
For 1 lb. penne or fusilli pasta cooked:
2 cloves chopped garlic
¾ cup olive oil
4 large ripe tomatoes chopped
2 cups shredded basil
4 chopped anchovies
½ cup pitted black olives
3 tbsp capers
½ tsp crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix ingredients and let marinate at room temperature for one
hour or more. Cook pasta, drain, and mix with 3 Tbsps olive oil, then toss with sauce. Serve at room temperature.
Cold Asian Pasta
There are three basic Asian cold noodle sauces that I like: Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese
Chinese Cold Noodle Sauce
For one pound of thin long pasta like spaghetti or Chinese wheat or egg noodles:
2 Tbsps sesame oil
1 tsp chili oil or one small fresh chili chopped
1 cup peanut oil
¾ cup soy sauce
2 tbsp each sesame seeds and ground coriander
½ cup walnuts or slivered almonds (optional)
5 oz. boiled ham sliced into thin strips (optional)
1 tsp each of salt and pepper
½ cup chopped scallions
½ cup chopped cilantro (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Whisk together all the sauce ingredients and set aside in a bowl. Meanwhile, cook the noodles in a large pot of briskly boiling salted water, until al dente. Drain pasta and add sauce. Mix well and chill in the refrigerator for several hours. Before serving, garnish with green onions and cilantro. Variation: add any of the following: 1 lb. shrimp, 2 shredded chicken breasts or 1 cup chopped raw vegetables (e.g. peppers, cucumbers, summer squash) or grated carrots to salad once chilled.
Cook 1 lb. somen or soba noodles or other long thin pasta in 1 ½ cup chicken stock.
¼ cup soy sauce
4 tsps sugar
1/8 tsp salt
2 ½ Tbsps water
2 1/2 Tbsps rice wine vinegar (Mirin) or 3 Tbsps light sherry
1 Tbsp sliced scallions
1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
Cook noodles in stock until al dente, drain and chill noodles. Boil dipping sauce ingredients for 5 minutes. Serve noodles in bowls with ice cubes and surround with small bowls of dipping sauce, grated ginger and scallions. Variation: add additional raw vegetables (e.g. grated carrots and radishes, pickled cucumbers and pickled ginger, cubed tofu).