It hasta be pasta
And you really can tell if it's done without throwing it on the wall

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 5 1999 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Pastaphiles" rejoice! October is National Pasta Month!

Most folks agree that there's almost nothing simpler or more satisfying than coming home and putting together a quick pasta meal. But as comforting as it can be, sometimes the same spaghetti and marinara sauce du jour becomes boring.Let's perk up our palates and take a new look at pasta -- one of American's favorite foods. The National Pasta Association has come up with a few ideas to help folks enjoy pasta all month long (or any time):

-- Learn to cook perfect pasta by tapping into the Internet (www.ilovepasta.org) for expert advice and a wealth of pasta recipes.

-- Take a fellow pasta lover to lunch at your favorite pasta restaurant.

-- Plan a Columbus Day pasta party. Serve appetizers, entrees, salads and desserts -- all made with pasta for your guests to "discover." (Acini di pepe -- Italian for "peppercorns" -- is the tiny pasta from which fabulous Frog's Eye Salad hatches.)

-- Plan to celebrate World Pasta Day (Oct. 25) by serving your family and friends an international pasta menu or a combination platter with samples of ethnic pasta favorites.

-- Master the art of substitution. Try a new shape in some of your favorite pasta dishes. For instance, use radiatore or spirals for a new twist on mac and cheese, or try bow ties in your favorite pasta salad for an interesting appearance.

-- Vow to add at least one new pasta shape a month to your pasta repertoire.

-- Play around with pasta -- without using a recipe. Improvise by grabbing some spices or herbs, or anything else you have in the fridge or pantry (avoid metal and plastic items, of course) -- and let your imagination run wild!

A survey taken by the National Pasta Association indicates that people say there are several different ways to tell when pasta is done. Over one-half (53 percent) said they taste or bite the pasta. Other popular methods were timing it according to package directions (14 percent), instinct (12 percent) or pinching it (9 percent).

Many of us learned certain "free-spirited" culinary basics while living away from home for the first time. College cookery was quick and cheap, and pasta fit well into the el cheapo realm. I recall a spaghetti breakfast (it made sense 30 years ago) when a roomie demonstrated how to tell when spaghetti was ready to eat. She extracted a noodle from the pot of boiling water and threw it against the wall. It stuck -- and she proclaimed, "It's done!" From then on, the wall-toss was standard spaghetti-cooking behavior. (Betcha those telltale "worm marks" still remain in that Logan kitchen.

"The story of throwing pasta on the wall to see if it's done is fun, but it's just that -- an old story," said culinary expert Leslie Bloom. "I recommend using a long-handled fork or spoon to pull out a few strands or pieces of pasta, starting several minutes before the package directions indicate it will be done. Then, cut the pasta with a knife or fork, or bite it. Pasta cooked "al dente," which means "to the tooth" in Italian, will be slightly chewy with a very small white dot of uncooked core at the center. For more tender pasta, wait until there is no white uncooked core showing."

Well, Ms. Bloom -- your test for doneness seems complicated. Why, the flinging noodle technique has inspired hordes of clueless cooks, yours truly included.

But Elaine Corn, foodie and a favorite cookbook queen who naturally gravitated to her namesake -- has a similar no-nonsense way of testing pasta for doneness. "You've heard it before," she says. "It comes from a scene in the movie 'The Odd Couple.' Throw it on the wall. If it sticks, it's done. Try this, and not only will you have a messy wall; you won't know much about your pasta."

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