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Sunday, 25 April 2010

Understanding Pasta - all there is to know



PASTA
is essentially made out of flour, water, oil, eggs (could be without), seasoning and herbs. It could be any combination of those ingredients, which are then mixed together to form a dough. The dough is then rested, after which it is rolled thin and cut into different shapes (rectangles for lasagne, long narrow strips for spaghetti, and long flat strips for linguine...etc). These are the main traditional ingredients used in making Pasta, but of course there are other variations.

Forms, Shapes and Flavours

There are many forms of Pasta. Most are categorised as Italian or Oriental. The Italian variety is classically durum-wheat based. The Oriental pasta, on the other hand, is made out of different flours and starches and is usually long strips of pasta, known as noodles.

There is a good range of Italian pasta that is non-wheat based and made with other flours instead. These are mainly for health food markets in order to cater for those who are wheat intolerant for instance, or eliminating wheat products from their diets. Whole-wheat and Buckwheat are to name a few, but with the increased interest in grains and other starches, nowadays you can find many other varieties.

There are many different shapes and types of Pasta

Pasta is either fresh or dried. It can be shaped in a variety of shapes. It can also be flavoured with an array of aromatics, herbs, and flavourings.

The earliest known reference to Pasta (in Italy) is traced to Middle Ages Sicily and has been a basic food in Italy ever since, especially in Naples and Rome. However contrary to common belief, Pasta did not originate in Italy, it is in fact An Arabic creation that moved to Italy by means of the Arabis through Sicily (but that is a full independant discussion, that I will dedicate a separate post for). Because Pasta was globally popularised from Italy, it is therefore most known and referred to as 'Italian-Pasta'.

The industrial manufacturing of pasta replaced home-made pastas and made it available everywhere. Since then Pasta has become a part of many cuisines, who have adopted this ingredient into their offerings.

Fresh Pasta (Pasta Fresca) - is the same product as dried pasta (Pasta Seca), only it has not been hung - after rolling and cutting - on pasta hangers and left to dry. The hard form of pasta is used and cooked in the same manner as fresh pasta. The only difference is that it might require a few minutes longer to cook. However, dried Pasta has a longer shelf life, whereas fresh pasta has to be consumed within a few days. Also worthy of notice that fresh pasta is mainly made using durum wheat and at times regular wheat flour, however the dry pasta is best made using semolina.


A wide variety of ingredients could be used to flavour fresh or dried pasta some of which are vegetables such as spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and recently sweet potato. Herbs like oregano, basil, rosemary and sage are also used in flavouring pasta and so are some spices such as nutmeg, allspice and at times even saffron (a very common ingredient in Sicilian cuisine, which is very well influenced by the historic Arabic cuisine)!

The most traditional Flavouring ingredients used with Pasta are: Spinach and Tomato. But other ingredients can be used as well not only to flavour but also to colour Pasta! Beetroot for example gives pasta a strong colour and a mild flavour. Black pasta is essentially made using squid ink, and green pasta comes from the use of spinach. This kind of treatment in colour and flavour is what allows you to create signature dishes that are unique and stand out from the rest. Black Pasta, for instance, is gorgeous and adds a dramatic touch to your plate. After all, when constructing a dish, colour is an important aspect to take into consideration; just as important as flavour and texture. The same applies to flavour. If you can incorporate pesto into the pasta dough, that will add a layer of flavouring and make your pasta way more interesting. This is why making your own pasta is far better than buying the ready made generic ones. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with buying pasta, we all do, and there are very good quality pastas in the market. But for more interesting pasta concoctions, and for more unique dishes, making your own will definitely step up the play. It becomes a whole different ball game!


Pasta Categories and Names
The term 'Baked Pasta' refers to dishes that contain Pasta and are baked. The pasta in those dishes had to be boiled then assembled in a dish with the rest of the ingredients. These days manufacturers are producing baking pastas - like lasagne, tortiglioni, bucatini, conchiglie and caravattine - that do not need to be pre-boiled before baking. They can rather be stuffed or layered dry then baked in generous proportions of sauce. The liquids from the sauce, and being covered with foil at first to build steam, will all cook the pasta without the need to pre-cook.

Another dimension to pasta and just as important is: stuffing. Stuffed pasta varieties include: Raviolli, Tortellini as well as Agnolotti, Cappelleti, Cannelloni, Lumache, and Manicotti...etc. Some will be available stuffed dried or fresh. Others will have to be boiled then stuffed by you. Stuffing may consist of cheeses, vegetables and |or meats. Obviously, the ready stuffed ones cannot even compare to those made at home! The work, the patience and creativity that goes into making your own stuffing makes it way better than the generic, and usually poorer manufacturer's stuffing.
Remember, manufacturers have to think in terms of profit and loss, as such sometimes the margins are determined in terms of the generosity in quantities as well as quality of the ingredients. Using 2 cheeses and a variety of mushroom types in the filling, is much more expensive than using 1 cheese and an herb. Also using the real Parmigiano Reggiano is more expensive than the processed simulation of Parmesan cheese... and so on... you get the drift!
Another variety of pastas, just as important as all the previous ones are, 'Soup Pastas'. These are fairly small in size and are added to soups towards the end of cooking. These mini pastas have also become very famous in Salads. Soup Pastas include: Vermicelli, Linguine, Pennette, Stelline, Risoni, Anellini and Conchigliette.


Cooking and Serving Pasta
Pasta is cooked in a heavy bottomed saucepan, 3/4 full of salted water. You can, if you wish, add flavouring to the boiling water, such as  freshly cracked black pepper, herbs, spices, garlic, Parmesan shavings...etc. Flavouring the boiling water this way, will eventually flavour the pasta.
Tip 
The pasta needs to be able to move freely in the boiling water, therefore use a big pot and enough water for large quantities. Otherwise, it will become too starchy and sticky. 
But you do not need massive amounts of water to cook your pasta in. A general rule of thumb is that the pasta must be sealed with the boiling water. Long dried pastas, like spaghetti, need to be gradually pushed into the water. You will put the pasta in the pot and wait till it softens, then push it in slightly, and so on until its covered.

The perfect doneness of pasta is called 'Al dente'; which is when the pasta is softened and no longer hard to chew, yet still retains a slight bite, and is still firm and holds shape. With fresh pasta, Al Dente is hard to achieve. So cook it until it is still firm and holds shape, but not and too soft because that is when it becomes overcooked. Fresh pasta never has a proper bite. But make sure you do not overcook the pasta - until it is too soft and loses shape.

The cooking time depends on the quality of the pasta, the type of wheat used in its making, its size and the amount of pasta being cooked. As a general guide (but do check your pasta while cooking to make sure): Dried vermicelli takes 4-5 mins; dried long pastas like spaghetti take 11-12 mins; and large pastas take about 12-15 minutes. All fresh pastas take from 3-8 minutes, depending their size.


Tip 
Timing for pasta cooking begins when the water returns to boiling after the pasta had been added.


When using Pasta in a salad, immediately after removing from the water, drizzle it with Olive Oil so it doesn't clump as it cools down. If the Pasta is to be served hot, then drain it after the cooking has finished, and do not rinse. Then add the sauce it's served with immediately, and serve it hot. In some recipes, you might have to allow 1-2 extra minutes of cooking with the sauce. In this case, reduce the first cooking time.

TIP
One trick to make the sauce stick to the pasta is to add a little bit of the boiling water to the sauce. The starches released into the boiling water will act as adhesives allowing the sauce to stick to the pasta.

There is a huge variety of sauces to be served with pastas. Many are tomato based, but there is also white sauce, flavoured white sauces, browned or burnt butter sauces, creams, cheese sauces, Bolognese, Milanaise...etc. Pasta dishes often include meats, fish, shellfish, ham...etc. They are often served with herbs, cheeses, vegetables...and Fillings include: Meat, spinach with white sauce and cheese, mushrooms, sausages, livers...etc.

Pasta is usually served as a starter to a meal, usually followed by a meat/poultry/fish dish, but could also be served as a side to a main dish or as main at times.





Pastas and Their Commonly Used Names:



1.Campanelle     
2. Mini Bow Ties     
3. Gnocchi
4. Spaghetti       
5. Manicotti             
6. Penne
7. Ravioli           
8. Linguine               
9. Fine Egg Noodles
10. Mafalda    
11. Orzo (rosamarina)   
12. Fusilli
13. CousCous   
14. Small Shell Macaroni  
15. Rotini
16. Capellini       
17. Wide Egg Noodles     
18. lumache


19. Long Ziti
20. Capellini (angel Hair)
21. Lasagne Noodles
22. Ziti
23. Ruote (Wagon Wheel Macaroni)
24. Cavatappi
25. Acini di peppe
26. Mafalda
27. Gemelli
28. Tortellini 
29. Ditalini (tiny Thimbles)
30. Rigatoni
31. Vermicelli
32. Cavatelli
33. Fettuccine
34. Nested Vermicelli (Nested Spaghetti)








Let's chat - Which is your favourite pasta dish? Are you the tomato sauce type or do you prefer white sauces? 

Also did you know that there is a huge Italian movement out there whose aim is to reclaim Italian cuisine? 
Yes there is! And reclaim the cuisine is in the sense that because Italian cuisine is the most popular and loved cuisine in the world, all people cook their own versions of Italian cuisine concoctions. As such and with time, these "Italian dishes" became very far off from their original and authentic source, at times not even Italian at all, except for the use of an Italian ingredient such as pasta or Parmesan cheese or truffles to name a few. 
Restaurants not following the authentic Italian way of making the food have led to many people around the world being confused what real Italian food and cuisine is. So much so that when in Italy tourists complain that the food they have in the restaurants there is not Italian! The Italian chefs and people took this to heart and started a movement to reintroduce authentic Italian cuisine and "real" Italian food to people all over the world.

What do YOU think? Are you a purist who looks for the authentic experience? Or are you OK with fusions, mixes and matches so long as they taste good? Do you feel that the authenticity of cuisine should be preserved? Or are you with the view that supports the notion of 'leaving the things of the past in the past and today the world is a global village and everything goes'? 
I really love to hear your thoughts so do please chat with me :)


Buon Appetito x

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