Know your pasta
– Rukmini Iyer, Director, Exult! Solutions
(Published at Rediff.com)
Is pasta one of your favourite foods?
Here are some intriguing pasta facts:
Pasta, in Italian, literally means paste. While popular belief holds that Marco Polo introduced it to the West from China, scholars have traced its origins to Sicily in the Middle Ages, when it was used as a staple food. It was introduced to France much later, before spreading to the rest of the world.
Let’s get the basics right
Traditionally, pasta is made from durum wheat semolina and eggs (although eggless pastas are now available). Durum is grown in Italy as well as the rest of the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, Russia and the Americas. It is a hard wheat, rich in gluten (a sticky elastic protein substance that gives the dough cohesiveness), that is ground into semolina.
Pastas are available in various forms – solid, dried or fresh. You can pick up dried pasta that just needs to be cooked in boiling, salted water. Easier still, you can find solid, stuffed pasta that just requires heating up.
If you are not among the lazier gastronomes, you could also try making your own fresh pasta. Here’s how:
Knead semolina – which is available in some specialty stores, or else use white flour (maida) – with egg (about 1 egg per 1½ cups semolina/flour and water to get a stiffish dough.
You can then add flavouring purees, if you wish. Let the dough rest for about 30 minutes. Roll the dough out and cut it into thin strips. You can then boil this in salted water.
For how long? The Italians swear by the ‘al dente’ rule – take a small bite of the pasta to check if it is tender, but slightly firm. If yes, take it off the stove. Do not let it overcook and get mushy.
Types of pasta
There are primarily two types of pasta:
Flat: Made by rolling dough between rollers into thin sheets, which are then cut into various shapes and sizes.
Cylindrical: Made by forcing dough through a pierced plate. The hole through which the dough is forced may be straight, curved or notched, to produce hollow tubes.
Want to know more about the shapes and sizes of pasta you might encounter? It’s a long list. These are various varieties of pasta within the two types we just read about:
~Spaghetti: Long, thin and noodle-like. You also get coloured spaghetti: yellow (natural colour due to the egg), red (by adding tomatoes) and green (by adding spinach).
~Fettuccine: Long, thin and ribbon-shaped.
~Macaroni: A short, stick-shaped pasta, hollow inside.
~Tagletilli: A flat variety, quarter-inch broad and ribbon-shaped.
~Fedelini: A very fine noodle-like pasta.
~Spiral: As the name suggests, a twisted, thin ribbon.
~Penne: One of the hot-selling varieties these days. It is short and cylindrical with grooves. Hollow on the inside and cut into a slant.
~Ragatoni: Similar to penne, but cut into rounds.
~Bozzoli: A hollow short pasta with grooves and ridges. The upper part has an opening.
~Pipe rigate: Curved pasta, hollow and with a smooth outer surface.
~Diamante: Flat variety cut into a diamond shape.
~Routoni: Flat and round, with wavy edges and a small hole in the centre.
~Cappelletti: The same as routoni, but without a hole in the centre.
~Fusilli: A twisted short pasta, spiral in shape.
~Farfalle: Can be described as being bow or butterfly-shaped.
~Stellini: Flat, star-shaped pasta that can generally be found in soups.
~Lasagne: A sheet of pasta, used with stuffing.
~Scalloped lasagne: With a scale-like structure, it has a smooth surface and wavy edges. Generally used for baking.
~Tortillini, Ravioli, Canelloni: All three are used for stuffing purposes. Popular fillings include spinach with béchamel sauce (a thick, rich white sauce), chicken liver, cheese, mushrooms, sausage meat, etc.
Sauce is to pasta what sugar syrup is to Roshogollas. The choice of sauce determines the flavour and taste of the dish to a great extent. Here’s a run-down of basic pasta sauces:
~Bolognaise sauce: A minced beef sauce seasoned with onion, garlic, red wine, rosemary, etc.
~Cream sauce: With white sauce as a base, it contains a lot of cream and cheese.
~Cheese sauce: A combination of white sauce and cheese.
~Basil sauce: Again, it has a white sauce base, with basil and cheese.
~Carbonara sauce: Diced bacon combined with egg yolk, onion, garlic, cream and chopped leeks. Finished with the ubiquitous parmesan cheese.
~Seafood sauce: Primarily has a béchamel base to which assorted seafood is added.
~Pesto sauce: Apart from parmesan cheese, it has basil, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil.
~Napoli sauce: A favourite among vegetarians, it has a tomato base, along with basil, garlic, olive oil, onions and paprika powder.
~Puttensca sauce: This takes the Napoli sauce as a base, to which olives, capers (a herb) and anchovy (a salty fish) are added.
~Primavera sauce: Napoli sauce to which juliennes (vegetables cut into thin strips) are added.
~Arabiata sauce: A favourite with those who love spicy food, this takes Napoli as the base, supplemented with chilli flakes and parmesan cheese.
~Moily sauce: An interesting sauce that can suit the Indian palate, it contains curry leaves, onions, green chillies and ginger blended into coconut milk.
~ While the type of pasta you choose does not contribute much to the taste, unless you opt for a flavoured variety, it is the sauce that matters a lot. Expect white-sauce based options to be more bland. Vegetarians can always go for Napoli-based sauces.
~ Generally, you can combine any type of pasta with any sauce.
Exceptions: Lasagne necessarily has sheet pasta, Tortillini, Ravioli, Canelloni are used for stuffing, so choose vegetarian or non-vegetarian sauces accordingly, Stellini is preferred in soup as it is small.
However, not all types of pasta may be available in a restaurant you go to. Usually, you are sure to find spaghetti, penne, macaroni and fettuccine.
~ While handling pasta with your fork, insert the tines within the pasta so it does not slide back to the plate. Pasta tends to be slippery, so avoid heaping it on your fork. The knife can be used to cut longer pasta such as fettuccine into bite-sized pieces.
Remember, the flavours are subtle, so you really need to be tuned into your meal to appreciate the finer nuances of your pasta.
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