With over 500 different types of pasta available, it is not only, one of the most popular foods in the world, but it can be served in hundreds of different ways. The drying process is also a key to the flavor of pasta. Slow drying at low temperatures helps to preserve the nutty flavor of the durum wheat. This method of slow drying pasta is an art as well as a science, since drying times vary depending on the shape of the pasta and outdoor relative humidity levels and temperatures. This subtle difference of a slow-dried pasta can be tasted best before you add the sauce.
There is archeological evidence that noodles existed in China about 4,000 years ago. Spanish colonists brought pasta to the U.S, but it wasn’t until the large immigration by Italians in the last half of the 19th century that pasta gained popularity. By the 1920’s, pasta was a comfort food throughout America.
Pasta is a healthy food. It is a source of complex carbohydrates, thiamin, folic acid, iron, riboflavin and niacin, and it contains only negligible amounts of fat, cholesterol, or sodium. Fettuccine Alfredo is high in calories from heavy cream, butter and Parmesan cheese. Make pasta healthier by serving it with a tomato-based sauce that contains clams, shrimp, peppers, mushrooms, chickpeas, or other low fat foods and flavorings.
A one cup serving of cooked pasta contains about 40 grams of carbohydrates. And in the context of a balanced diet, 40 grams of carbohydrates is not over doing it. It is the same amount of carbs as in a cup of rice, for example. The problem is that, when it comes to pasta, we seem to think that a larger portion is the norm. For example, a one-cup serving of rice looks perfectly appropriate to us—actually generous, but put one cup of pasta in front of us and it doesn’t look right at all.
If you’re trying to figure out how much to cook, a serving of dried pasta is about two ounces. For long, thin shapes, that’s a bundle the size of a dime. For smaller shapes, it’s about a half cup. You can also mentally divide up the box. Each one pound box contains about eight servings. Once it’s cooked, a serving of pasta equals one measuring cup, or about the size of your fist.
Different Types of Pasta
You can vary the type of pasta you serve based on your nutritional needs or what other ingredients you are going to combine with the pasta.
Alternative Grain Pastas: This category includes Kamut® (a whole grain pasta), spelt pasta (made with 100% spelt flour) and quinoa (an ancient grain pasta similar to rice).
Durum Semolina Pasta: This is the best choice for wheat-based pasta. Durum wheat is a high-gluten, exceptionally hard wheat, while “semolina” refers to the milling texture (that of fine sand). If your pasta has a rich ivory color approaching yellow, you can be sure it is made with durum semolina.
Egg Noodles: They may be delicate, but egg noodles absorb sauces more readily than regular durum noodles. These are best eaten with light sauces.
Gluten-free Pasta: The primary ingredients used as flour in gluten-free pasta are brown rice, corn, a combination of corn and quinoa, potato and soybeans.
Whole Wheat Pasta: This pasta choice offers nutrition and a rich, nutty flavor that stands up to robust sauces. Since production varies, if your first experience with whole grain pasta doesn’t meet expectations, try another brand before giving up on this healthy pasta choice. Vegetable combinations are best used with this type of pasta.
How To Cook Pasta
The term “al dente” in Italian literally means “to the tooth” and can be best translated as “chewy” or pasta that is boiled just to the point of being cooked through, yet remains firm. Americans prefer their pasta to be cooked longer. This is unfortunate, because the length of time pasta is cooked can have quite substantially different effects on blood glucose and the softer the pasta, the higher the glycemic index. (The Glycemic Index (GI) is a numerical scale used to indicate how fast and how high a particular food can raise our blood glucose (blood sugar) level.)
For 1 pound of pasta, use a pot that’s at least 8 quarts. When the water has boiled, salt it generously—about 2 tablespoons.
- Add the pasta; stir it right away so it doesn’t stick. Push longer pasta down into the water with tongs or a spaghetti fork to make sure it’s totally submerged. Stir occasionally to keep the pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- When the pasta begins to soften, try tasting it. If you bite into a piece and see a thin, starchy line inside, keep boiling.
- To achieve the al dente texture, cook the pasta a minute or two under the recommended cooking time.
- Drain the pasta in a colander. Don’t rinse, the starch that remains on the pasta will help the sauce adhere.
Save a cup of the boiling water before you drain the pasta. The starch in the water will help thicken the sauce and help it coat the pasta.
My family certainly likes pasta with a tomato based sauce and we always have plenty of that on hand. In order to eat less meat and less fat, I have also accumulated a number of recipes that utilize vegetables, fish, citrus flavorings and low-fat sauces. Here are some recipes that are good for you:
Penne with Artichokes
- 1-9 oz package frozen artichokes, defrosted
- 1 1/4 cups water
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 oz sun-dried tomatoes, in oil, drained and sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup Progresso Italian bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
- 12 ounces penne, cooked and drained ( or any short pasta of your choice)
Combine artichokes, water and lemon juice in medium saucepan and cook over medium heat until tender. Cool artichokes, then cut into thick slices. Reserve the artichoke cooking liquid.
Cook and stir 3 tablespoons garlic and 1 tablespoon oil in skillet over medium-high heat until golden. Reduce heat to low. Add artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes; simmer 1 minute. Stir in artichoke liquid, red pepper flakes, parsley, salt and pepper. Simmer 5 minutes.
Stir together the bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese.
Pour artichoke sauce over pasta in large bowl; toss gently to coat.
Sprinkle with bread crumbs and cheese mixture.
Pasta with Asparagus and Shrimp in Lemon Sauce
This recipe can be adapted to whatever vegetables are in season and your protein or herbs of choice.
- 1 pound asparagus, cut into 2-inch lengths
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 1 lb large ( any size is fine) shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound short curly pasta, such as corkscrews, fusilli, chiocciole (small snails) or small shells
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Zest of 2 lemons, finely grated and the juice from the lemons (should be about 4 tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Lemon slices for garnish
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, drop in the asparagus and cook until tender but firm. Remove the asparagus with a slotted spoon to a bowl and reserve.
- Bring the water back to a boil, drop in the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid.
- Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook about 1 minutes. Add the shrimp and garlic, season with salt and pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add the asparagus and cook until the shrimp are cooked through (just pink) and the asparagus are warmed, about 2 minutes more. Add the lemon juice and toss. Remove from heat.
- Return the pasta to the pot and toss it with 1/2 of the Parmesan, 1/2 of the parsley, lemon zest, remaining olive oil and reserved cooking liquid. Season with salt and a generous sprinkling of coarsely ground fresh pepper. Pour into a serving bowl.
- Arrange the shrimp and asparagus on top and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese and parsley. Garnish with lemon slice.
This recipe is under 350 calories per serving.
- A Gluten Free Pasta Dish Loaded With “Cancer Fighting” Veggies! (beefitwithtracy.com)
- W is for Wheat – Semolina Can Get Chefs Talking Wheat (janiceperson.com)
- The Dish on Pasta: Maligned Food Actually a Healthy Carb (livescience.com)
Years ago, Italians often took three hour lunch breaks and ate mutli-course meals. As times have changed, it is more rare for Italian families to gather at the table during lunch and have a full home-made meal. Italy’s economical situation is such that many mothers have had to take on full-time jobs, children are in school until mid-afternoon and most people do not have time to go home during lunch time. Typically, people working in offices have a 1-hour break and eat lunch at a bar or pasticceria, that offers foods to go, such as fresh made sandwiches, prepared salads, or square slices of pizza or stuffed focaccia. Italian sandwiches aren’t multi-layered, American style sandwiches but, usually, just simple focaccia bread with a few lean slices of prosciutto, some sliced tomatoes with mozzarella or pecorino cheese. Italian pizzas are very thin. have limited toppings and are usually vegetarian. Bread without butter and salads are also very common at lunch. Pastas are also popular and usually full of vegetables. One exception is on Sundays, many families will have a large, 2-3 hour lunch and often eat this meal out in a restaurant.
As a child growing up in an Italian-American home, I remember Sundays were pretty much reserved for family. My father would take us to visit our grandparents or other relatives while my mother prepared the Sunday meal. Sunday lunch was really dinner but held early in the afternoon. After my grandmother died, when I was quite young, my grandfather would often join us for Sunday dinner. As my children were growing up. I tried to make meals an important time to be together and we kept some of the traditions built around meals. Lunch, however, was lunch – a quick meal. Through the years I have gravitated toward lighter and healthy selections for lunch.
My favorite food for lunch is soup, so I keep a number of containers in the freezer to pull out when I feel like soup for lunch. Salads or typical items found on an antipasto tray are also a favorite.
Below are two soup recipes that are substantial enough for lunch and two salad recipes that I hope you will enjoy.
Tortellini Soup with Escarole
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2-32 oz. cartons low sodium chicken broth (8 cups)
- 1 bunch escarole (or 8 cups spinach) washed and cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1-9 oz. pkg. fresh tortellini
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
- salt and pepper to taste
- Parmesan Cheese
In soup pot, heat oil and saute shallots for two minutes.
Add both containers of chicken broth and bring to a boil.
Add tortellini, return to boiling, reduce heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer about 5 minutes.
Add the escarole and simmer until the greens are wilted.
Add parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Serve soup with shaved Parmesan cheese strips.
- 1 lb. dried brown lentils ( about 2 1/2 cups)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1/2 cup chopped celery
- 1/2 cup chopped carrot
- 1 large potato, diced
- 1/2 cup medium pearl barley
- 8 cups water
- 4 cups low sodium chicken broth
- 1-16 oz can diced tomatoes, no salt added
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- Salt and pepper to taste
Cover the lentils with water in a large bowl. Let soak for 1 hour. Drain and rinse.
Heat oil in a large soup pot and add garlic, onion, celery, carrots and potato.
Cook, stirring several times, for 10 minutes.
Add water, chicken broth, lentils and barley. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover pot and simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Check the lentils and barley, to see if they are tender, after 45 minutes.
Add tomatoes, oregano salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.
My favorite salad is made of fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese.
Tomato and Mozzarella Salad
- 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese sliced 1/4-inch thick
- 2 large vine-ripened tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
- 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
- Freshly-ground black pepper and salt to taste
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Alternate fresh mozzarella slices with sliced tomatoes, overlapping, in a circular design on a serving plate. (See photo)
Tear fresh basil leaves and sprinkle liberally over the slices. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Just before serving, drizzle with top-quality extra-virgin olive oil.
- 1/4 cup slivered red onion
- 1/4 cup chopped celery
- 2 cups cooked chickpeas (or 1- 19-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed)
- 8 ripe cherry tomatoes, quartered
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon drained capers, rinsed and coarsely chopped
- Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
Whisk olive oil and lemon in a salad bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss well. Chill.
Serve over tender lettuce leaves (such as, Bibb).
I like to top this salad with leftover shrimp or grilled tuna. Roasted red peppers are also a good addition
Popular Italian Beans
The region of Tuscany is famous for its bean production. Cannellini or white kidney beans, are, perhaps, its most popular bean. Borlotti is a bean of northern Italy. Borlotti is also considered to be the healthiest due to its high iron concentration. This bean, in particular, is a popular meat substitute. These red, tan and brown speckled beans turn a dark brown on the outside and yellow on the inside when cooked. They add a creamy consistency to any recipe.
Fresh or dried fava beans are a staple of Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania and Sicily. A staple of southern Italian cuisine, fava beans are hardy and widely available. Purchasing beans that are already skinned and split is the preferred method for ease of preparation. Buying whole beans in their protective skins calls for hours of soaking as well as a tinge of bitterness when they are cooked. Lentils, or lenticchie, are eaten all across Italy. With their nutty taste, lentils are ideally small and brown. The most select lentils are grown in Umbria, Abruzzo and Sicily. Although lentils do not require soaking previous to cooking, they are best when soaked for about an hour.
With the exception of a few types of beans, like lentils, most should be soaked at least eight hours or longer. Some cooks add a bit of baking soda during the soaking, which seems to help the beans remain intact during cooking. Be sure to discard the water, the beans soak in, before cooking with them.
Also, when cooking beans, be generous with the water – a good rule of thumb is six cups for every cup of beans. One cup of dry beans will yield two cups of cooked beans. Try adding a bit of olive oil to the water the beans cook in because it will add flavor and keep them from sticking to each other. Cooking times will vary, of course, but generally Borlotti take about an hour, chickpeas require about an hour and a half of cooking time and lentils may be ready after a half hour.
Some of the most popular Italian dishes that call for beans include minestrone, bean soup, lentil soup, pasta with red bean sauce, fava beans and pasta, lentil stew with sausage and penne with chickpeas. Beans are used in spreads, soups, sauces and main courses. Beans are a great source of fiber, antioxidants and protein. Many people choose the simplicity of canned beans over cooking dried beans. However, canned beans are more expensive per serving and also have added sodium. With a little bit of planning, you can work with dried beans. You will taste the difference in fresh cooked dried beans.
Soaking the Beans
The night before serving, rinse the beans, picking out any bad ones and place them in a large bowl. Cover with about 2 inches of water, add a pinch of baking soda and let soak overnight. The next day, drain well. Place the beans in a heavy soup pot with 1 carrot, cut in half, 1 celery stick, cut in half, 1/2 onion, peeled and quartered, 1 sprig of rosemary and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until the beans are tender. Drain and discard the vegetables. Adding salt to beans at the beginning of cooking toughens the skins and increases cooking time, so add it to taste toward the end of the cooking time. Most types of beans cook in about an hour but taste for tenderness. You can serve the beans as a side dish or refrigerate the beans to use in recipes on another day.
Here are some recipes I recommend using cooked beans.
Beans and Greens
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
- 1 bunch Swiss Chard, cut into one inch pieces or any greens of choice
- 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 teaspoon dried Italian herbs
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups cooked cannellini beans
- Grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish
In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Add garlic, and cook 1 minute more. Add Swiss Chard, and stir slowly, allowing it to wilt slightly. Add chicken broth, herbs, and salt; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the beans, and continue to simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and the greens are tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Serve warm, garnished with grated Parmesan cheese.
Tuscan Country Bean Soup
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 cup chopped fennel
- 2 cups chopped celery
- 2 cups chopped carrots
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic (2-3 cloves)
- 3 cups cooked dried cannellini beans
- 1 carton (32 oz) low sodium chicken broth
- 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Heat the olive oil in a large pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the fennel, celery and carrots and saute for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the drained beans, chicken broth and tomatoes to the pan along with the thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with the grated cheese.