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."

Corn's method makes sense . . . if you're ready to put away childish cooking habits. She says, "You have no choice but to taste. Even professionals have to reach in and try a strand. It's best to run the strand under cold water before tasting. Only then will you be able to tell how the pasta will feel once sauced. To test, put it right between your front teeth. It should be barely firm but without a hard center."

It's up to you, kids. You needn't decoupage all your walls with strings of spaghettini, but a strand or two just might perk up a lifeless, predictable kitchen.

Moving on . . . here's a pasta dilemma. To Rinse or Not To Rinse. It's recommended that cooked pasta should not be rinsed when cooking time is complete. The only time to rinse pasta, says Bloom, is if you're making a salad -- and then use cold water to stop the pasta from overcooking.

For perfect pasta every time, start with a large pot (8-quart capacity is ideal) and heat 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rapid, rolling boil for one pound of dry pasta. When the water reaches the rolling boil, add salt, if desired (1 tablespoon for every 1 pound of pasta). Then add the pasta gradually, stirring at the same time. Allow the water to return to a rapid boil.

After the pasta goes into the water, stir when it returns to a rapid boil, and occasionally during cooking to prevent it from sticking. Timing the pasta begins after the water returns to a rapid boil. Following the package directions is a sure-fire method of succeeding. It's important to remember that the water must be kept at a constant rolling boil after the pasta is added. If the pasta sits in hot, non-bubbling water, the texture of the finished product will be mushy.

PASTA WITH GARLIC AND SALSA

8 ounces Rigatoni, Penne, or other medium pasta shape

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped

1 cup salsa

Cook pasta according to package directions, drain.

After pasta is done, heat frying pan on medium heat. Add olive oil, garlic, salsa, and cooked pasta to pan. Toss and cook until pasta is well coated with oil, garlic, and salsa. Serve immediately topped with grated cheese. Serves 4.

Each serving contains 400g calories, 11g protein, 8g fat, 70g carbs, 392mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol. From the National Pasta Association

LINGUINE WITH GORGONZOLA AND PROSCIUTTO

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 red onions, in thin slices

4 ounces prosciutto, cut into shreds

4 ounces oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained and sliced

1/4 small red pepper, dried and finely chopped

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 pound linguini

4 ounces Gorgonzola, crumbled

Minced fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Heat the oil in a saucepan. Saute the onion until soft. Add the prosciutto, sundried tomatoes, and red pepper. Saute until the prosciutto is crisp. Add the chicken broth. Simmer until the broth has almost disappeared. Stir in the cream. Cook the linguini in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain. Stir in Gorgonzola and parsley. Serves 6.

Each serving contains 377 calories, 19g protein, 18g fat, 37g carbs, 793mg sodium, 49mg cholesterol. From "Pasta, a Passion" by Nina Dreyer Hensley, Jim Hensley, and Paul Lowe

PANZANELLA

6 ounces penne pasta

1/2 loaf day-old white bread, cut into cubes

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tomatoes, diced

1 red onion, cut into thin rings

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 chicken breasts, grilled or sauteed and cut into slices

1/2 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain. Rinse the pasta with cold water. Mix the bread cubes and oil together. Put the bread cubes on a baking sheet. Bake until they are crisp and golden. Gently mix the pasta, bread, tomatoes, red onion, herbs, and chicken in a serving bowl. Whisk the oil and vinegar together. Pour the dressing over the salad. Add salt and pepper. Serve the pasta immediately, so that the bread cubes do not become soft. Serves 6.

Each serving contains 473 calories, 24g protein, 29g fat 27g carb, 389mg sodium, 55mg cholesterol. From "Pasta, a Passion"

PAPPARDELLE WITH SUNDRIED TOMATOES, ARTICHOKES, AND GARLIC OIL

4 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup olive oil

6 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 10-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts

1 pound pappardelle

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained and chopped

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons pine nuts

Minced fresh basil for sprinkling

Heat the 4 tablespoons olive oil in a saucepan. Saute the garlic, salt, and pepper flakes until the garlic is soft. Let cool. Pour in the 3/4 cup oil. Cook the artichoke hearts in salted boiling water to cover for 3 minutes. Drain. Cut the artichoke hearts in half. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain. Heat the one tablespoon of oil in a skillet. Saute the artichoke hearts until lightly browned. Stir in the sundried tomatoes. Stir the tomato sauce and pasta together. Pour the garlic mixture over. Sprinkle the Parmesan, pine nuts, and basil over the pasta. Toss gently. Serves 6.

Each serving contains 547 calories, 10g protein, 4g fat, 31g carb, 407mg sodium, 7mg cholesterol. From "Pasta, a Passion"

ALFREDO SAUCE

3 cups heavy cream

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine the cream and butter in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in half of the Parmesan cheese. Add salt and pepper. Gently mix the warm sauce with freshly cooked pasta and serve with grated Parmesan cheese alongside. This sauce is also wonderful in lasagna or on ravioli. Serves 6.

Each serving contains 553 calories, 9g protein, 57g fat, 4g carb, 477mg sodium, 197mg cholesterol. From "Pasta, a Passion"

TUSCAN TOMATO SAUCE

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

8 to 10 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, peeled (canned tomatoes may be used)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon sugar (optional)

Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, and basil. Saute for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Simmer over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Taste the sauce and add sugar if needed. Serve the warm sauce with freshly cooked pasta, or use in other dishes. The sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for 2 days. Serves 6.

Each serving contains 150 calories, 2g protein , 11g fat, 10g carb, 288mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol. From "Pasta, a Passion"

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