October 13, 2017   - Vol. IX No. 21
The Art of Pasta
From the Department of Good News, pasta, as a key component of the Mediterranean Diet, is the perfect foundation for healthy meals: it’s convenient, inexpensive, and infinitely versatile, serving as a go-to building block for well-balanced and affordable dishes. And there’s an added bonus: pasta has a low glycemic index. If you take the same amount of flour and water and make both pasta and bread, the pasta will be digested much more slowly than the bread, giving you steady fuel instead of spiking your blood sugar.

Pasta Isn’t Just Italian

Pasta is one of the world’s most accessible foods, which is probably why nearly every country has its own unique versions of this ingredient. In the Mediterranean countries, pasta is prepared in an infinite number of ways, and each is more delicious than the next. In Greece, macaronia , as it is called, is in many classic and modern dishes on the mainland and throughout the islands. The most popular pasta is the rice-shaped orzo, which is, among other wonderful dishes, routinely paired with olives, spinach, and feta cheese. Pastitsio , a meeting of Italian and Greek kitchen traditions and a staple at many Greek homes and restaurants, is a rich and hearty baked dish of penne, ground meat, tomatoes, and béchamel sauce.

Tiny, thumbnail-sized, triangles of pasta filled with ground lamb called manti are a Turkish delight and labor of love. If you are served manti in someone’s home, the smaller the size of the manti, the more highly your host regards you—the smaller they are, the more difficult to roll and fill. After they’re boiled, the manti are traditionally served with one of three sauces (sometimes all three arrive at the table): brown butter, garlic and labne (drained yogurt), and rich tomato.

Many know of the Spanish rice dish paella, but fideos , a similar dish made with short (an inch or so), thin noodles, is a Catalonian favorite. Made in a paella pan or clay crock, fideos are not boiled and then topped with sauce, but instead cooked start to finish with all the aromatics of the dish absorbed into each noodle. An excellent reason to prepare a fideos recipe and conjure a mini Mediterranean escape!

In North Africa, couscous—a teeny semolina pasta often mistaken for a grain (there is no couscous plant)—is steamed, not boiled. Moroccans and Tunisians use it for their tagines , but couscous can also be found in soups, salads, and even desserts.

But let’s be honest: When we think of pasta, it’s usually an archetypal plate of Italian food. And why not, with the thousands of shapes and sizes to choose from—fettucine, bucatini, corzetti, oriechiette, farfalle, cavatappi, spaghetti, tortelli, tortellini, tortelloni, tagliatelle, strozapreti—each with its own history and traditional sauce pairing. While white pasta may most readily come to mind, many traditional pastas, such as the buckwheat bigoli of Venice, have always been made with whole grains. Today, as high-quality whole grain pastas are more readily available, top chefs are exploring the best sauce pairings for the nuttier, fuller taste of whole grain.

We have Thomas Jefferson to thank for bringing pasta to the U.S. While traveling in Europe, he enjoyed what he called macaroni— which became the American word used for all pasta shapes until a decade or so ago. Jefferson liked macaroni so much that he returned to America with two cases in tow. When his supply ran out, he sent for reinforcements via a friend from Naples. Fortunately, these days, you can find pasta much closer to home.

4 Things You Didn’t Know About Cooking Pasta

1. You need more water than you think.
You should cook pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water; this keeps pasta from sticking together, and helps the water return quickly to a boil as you add the pasta to the pot. Salt the water to add flavor, using less if your sauce will include briny ingredients such as olives or anchovies.

2. Don’t add oil, and don’t rinse pasta after cooking.
Adding oil to the boiling water or to the pasta after it is cooked prevents the sauce from absorbing into the pasta. You want the sauce to soak into the noodles for more flavor. Rinsing washes away the pasta’s starch, which you want to help thicken and flavor the final sauce.

3. Cook pasta slightly underdone, or al dente, which means “to the tooth.”
Cooked pasta should not be crunchy nor have a white center if split in half, but it should have some chew to it. To test, remove a piece of pasta from the boiling water, run it under cold water to cool, then taste. If it’s ready (al dente), drain—reserving some of the starchy pasta water—and add the pasta to your sauce; it will finish cooking in the sauce. If the pasta needs more cooking and the sauce is drying out, add some of the reserved pasta water to finish cooking. 

4. You should be cooking pasta on October 25.
Why? Because it's World Pasta Day—this year and every year! Celebrate with your favorite pasta dish, or try one of the recipes below. And if you want to know even more about the nutrition science of pasta, click here for the  Healthy Pasta Meal Scientific Consensus Statement.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

Have some leftover ravioli? Instead of heating them up and eating them as they are, cook them into an omelet/frittata. You will impress your friends (and yourself!) by making this easy peasy and eggalicious recipe that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Recipe and photo courtesy of the Egg Nutrition Center .

This great dish may be too simple to call a recipe! Serve this with a good whole grain peasant bread, a side salad of mesclun greens in vinaigrette, and wine, and you’ve got a perfect dinner. (Not to mention: A perfect lunch for the next day!)

An Oldways recipe and photo.

This recipe can be made ahead and served chilled—or enjoyed as soon as it’s ready, lukewarm. A very simple and economical recipe, ready in the time it takes to cook the pasta.

An Oldways recipe and photo.
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.