By JeanMarie Brownson • Chicago Tribune

In this era when every other person seems to be avoiding carbs or gluten, the pasta aisle at the grocery store offers more excitement than ever.

Pasta shapes, heretofore relegated to fancy Italian restaurants prove easy to find. Refrigerated cases boast stuffed pastas and tender sheets for lasagna. There’s also the every-growing selection of whole grain pastas, gluten-free pastas and vegetables sliced to resemble pasta noodles.

Pasta is a great ingredient worthy of our time in the kitchen and a place on the dinner table. There are a number of studies that say everything in moderation is the way to live long and prosper.

I happily employ pasta to solve dinner dilemmas.

Spaghetti with buttered breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley and hot pepper. Linguine with clam sauce. Penne with bottled tomato sauce and Parmesan.

To enjoy pasta sans guilt means thinking about portion control. Restaurants serve more than the recommended serving size. At home, it’s easier to avoid overeating.

I figure 1 pound of dried pasta serves 8 — especially when accompanied by vegetables or a salad. Unless I’m planning on leftovers, I cook only a portion of a packaged of dried pasta.

Don’t overcook pasta to soft mush, cook it to al dente — toothsome in the center when you bite it — and not crunchy or raw. Keep tasting as it cooks. It’s better to err on the side of undercooked rather than over — the pasta will soften from residual heat and the hot sauce.

Cooked properly, there are two professional tricks to up your pasta game immensely. First, reserve some of the pasta cooking water before you drain the pasta; this starch-laden water can be used to thin sauce and it helps the sauce adhere to the noodles. Second, add the hot pasta to the heated sauce and simmer together briefly to help the sauce cling. Add dribbles of the pasta-cooking water to achieve proper consistency.

These recipes are designed to be flexible. Change the pasta shape and the protein to suit your taste. Buy the best pasta you can afford.

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