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.
Pappardelle with duck, golden turnips and prunes
Par-cooking the turnips in the microwave cuts the cooking time and their sharp taste. Parsnips, rutabaga, small new potatoes or daikon radish can stand in for the turnips; each will subtly transform the dish in its own way.
2 medium turnips, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch dice
1/2 C diced pitted prunes
1 package duck leg confit or 2 C shredded smoked chicken, roast pork or grilled steak
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large red onion, finely sliced
3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 C chicken broth
1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme or 1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/4 to 1/2 C heavy whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 C torn radicchio or very thinly sliced red cabbage
16 to 17 oz pappardelle pasta, or long egg noodles about 1/2-inch wide
Large shreds of pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley and chives
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Put diced turnips into a medium-size microwave-safe bowl. Add 1/2 cup water and cover tightly. Microwave on high until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain.
2. Put prunes into a small dish; add very hot water to barely cover. Let stand.
3. Scrape duck fat and juices off the duck legs into a bowl. Remove duck skin. Pull meat from the bones into large shreds.
4. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large, deep nonstick skillet. Add onion. Cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in drained turnips, and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in garlic, and cook 1 minute. Stir in broth, any duck juices, prunes , their soaking liquid and thyme. Boil hard 2 minutes. Stir in cream, salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Stir in the radicchio.
5. Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot of salted water to the boil. Add pasta and cook al dente, about 6 or 7 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the pasta, and add to the skillet with the duck shreds. Set pan over medium heat. Toss to coat pasta with sauce, adding splashes of the cooking liquid to moisten the dish.
6. Serve topped with cheese and fresh herbs.
Nutrition information per serving: 575 calories, 17 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 137 mg cholesterol, 68 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 34 g protein, 238 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
Orecchiette with roasted green chile, sausage and leeks
Canned roasted green chiles save time, but sacrifice flavor. Choose the marinara sauce option for a lighter entree; use the cream for an indulgent dish. I like the orecchiette No. 91 from the De Cecco brand.
1 lb uncooked sweet or spicy Italian sausage, removed from casing
1 large leek, ends trimmed, quartered lengthwise, rinsed
1 C chicken broth
2 TBS olive oil
3 green chiles
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper or crushed red peppers to taste
1 lb orecchiette pasta
4 C loosely packed baby kale or spinach
Shredded pecorino Romano cheese
3 cups tomato marinara sauce or 1 C heavy whipping cream
1. Roast peppers over an open flame (or on a baking sheet set 6 inches from the heat of a broiler), turning often, until skin is blistered and blackened on all sides, about 10 minutes. Cool under a towel, then rub off blackened skins. Remove the core and stem. Rinse peppers under cool running water and pat dry. Cut into 1/2 inch wide strips, then cut strips into 1-inch pieces.
2. Put sausage into a large, deep nonstick skillet. Cook, breaking sausage up into little pieces, until golden and cooked through, about 8 minutes.
3. Thinly slice the leek. Stir the leek and olive oil into the sausage and cook until leek is wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in garlic, and cook 1 minute. Stir in chicken broth and tomato sauce (or cream), and heat to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
4. Bring a large heavy-bottomed pot full of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook al dente, about 12 to 15 minutes. Scoop out, and reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the pasta.
5. Stir pasta into the sausage mixture and put over high heat for 1 or 2 minutes. Loosen the texture by adding a little of the pasta water. Add the kale and chiles; toss to mix and heat through, about 1 minute. Serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 410 calories, 14 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 56 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 16 g protein, 738 mg sodium, 5 g fiber