Amazing Paste

There is no doubt that pasta is an incredible food. Think about it: hulled grain is ground and mixed with either egg or water to form a paste. Once boiled, this paste transforms into a foodstuff that is so simple, yet at the same time so versatile and adaptable, it seems almost a Godsend. From appetizer and soup, to salad, main course, and dessert, pasta can be tailored to fit any course or any cuisine. It is inexpensive, nutritious, and the neutrality of it's flavor offers a cook endless options.

This, of course, is a somewhat biased opinion because I happen to like pasta. No, actually I love pasta; I could eat it 5 times a week, and sometimes I do. If you've ever had the misfortune to work in the same establishment as myself you understand this completely, and you've most likely grown a little weary of pasta because of the frequency in which it's served at staff meals.

At one particular restaurant where I worked our sous chef happened to be from southern Italy. He took an immediate liking to me because -- I feel -- of my general affection for not only Mediterranean cuisine, but more specifically pasta. At the end of a long shift it wasn't a question as to whether Antonio and I would have pasta -- because we always did -- it was a question of how we would prepare it. Red wine, of course, flowed freely. Some of my best memories of that restaurant are of our meals in the hot kitchen; the rest is all chaos.

Numerous cultures have enjoyed pasta in one form or another throughout history. And while some believe that Marco Polo first brought it with him on his return from China, there is evidence that pasta evolved simultaneously in many different areas of the world. Sometimes certain foods are not thought of as a type of pasta, when in fact they are. The dough that surrounds pierogi, for example -- which, incidentally, are indigenous to the many countries in Eastern Europe, and are exceedingly popular in the US -- is a form of pasta. Pierogi are a type of ravioli by a different name. Spätzle and noodles are forms of pasta. Even certain dumplings could be categorized as pasta. And, of course, the Far East has multitudes of pasta varieties. Italian pasta, though, is unquestionably the most popular form of pasta in the United States.

The word "pasta," which means dough in Italian, translates to English simply as "paste," referring to the flour paste that it is. What I find particularly interesting about pasta, is that it is a food that is truly rooted in it's humble peasant beginnings, but at the same time has found its way to menus of some of the "hautest" of haute cuisine restaurants. Spaghetti Primavera (spaghetti springtime, or literally first green), which later became known as Pasta Primavera, for instance, is not an Italian dish, but one that was first served on American soil, and at one of the best restaurants in the country. Italian born Sirio Maccioni, the owner of the famed Le Cirque restaurant (now Le Cirque 2000), in New York City, devised the dish in an attempt to offer his patrons lighter and more waist-pleasing fare during the early 1970's.

Pasta e Fagiole (pasta with beans) and Spaghetti and Meatballs are two examples of simple and traditional pasta dishes that are as at home in America today as they are abroad. They're also two of this cook's personal favorites. Like many foods, these dishes were surely born out of necessity when meat was scarce. Beans are a logical substitute for animal-derived protein, and it's easy to "stretch" the amount of meat in meatballs by adding breadcrumbs and eggs. Though sometimes pasta is best enjoyed with nothing more than a little butter and cheese, or garlic and olive oil (truly a match made in heaven).

When cooking pasta, do so in a large amount of lightly salted water (approximately 1 quart water for every 4 ounces of pasta). If it is cooked in an insufficient amount of water the water will stop boiling and the pasta will stick together and become gummy. A small amount of salt added to pasta water flavors the pasta (it absorbs into the dough), but it's not necessary to add oil to the water -- if it is cooked correctly the pasta will not stick. Pasta water is also useful for other culinary needs, such as thinning sauces, or cooking vegetables. Pasta water carries nutrients as well as starch to add viscosity to a sauce, and vegetables that are cooked with pasta water receive added flavor.

The length of time that pasta is cooked depends on the type and shape. Your best bet is to follow the manufactures directions listed on the side of the package. Most dried pasta will double in volume when cooked. And lastly, when pasta is cooked, drain it but do not rinse it unless it is intended for cold salad. Rinsing pasta washes away starch and nutrients. If cooked properly sticking should not be a problem.

Ziti with Tomato Sauce and Meatballs

Yield 2-4 servings

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon basil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 cup red wine

1-1/2 cups chicken broth

1-1/2 cups tomato purée

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a small sauce pot. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, but not browned. Add the garlic and sauté 1 minute. Stir in the sugar, basil, salt, and pepper; sauté another minute. Add the red wine, and allow it to simmer for 30 seconds. Stir in the broth and tomato purée. Bring the sauce to a slow simmer.

For the meatballs:

8 ounces ground beef

1/2 small onion, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano Cheese

1 large egg

1 slice wheat bread, crust removed and torn into small pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon basil

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon pepper

olive oil for sautéing

Combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl, and knead them for a minute or two, or until they are a homogenous mass. Roll the meat into 16 mini meatballs. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Place the meatballs in the hot oil and brown them on all sides. Remove the meatballs from the skillet and transfer them to the sauce. Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for 45 minutes. If the sauce becomes too thick add water or broth until desired consistency.

To complete the dish:

1/2 pound ziti

grated Pecorino Romano Cheese

crushed hot pepper

Cook the ziti in plenty of boiling water until al dente. Drain the pasta thoroughly, then transfer it to a large bowl. Pour the sauce and meatballs over the pasta; toss until combined. Serve while hot with grated cheese and crushed red pepper.

Spaghetti with Garlic, Oil, and Fresh Spinach

Yield: 4 servings

3/4 pound spaghetti

1/2 cup virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper flakes

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/4 teaspoon salt

10 ounces fresh spinach, washed and drained twice, large stems removed.

2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Cook the spaghetti and drain it. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet with the garlic and hot pepper flakes. When the garlic just starts to change color add the chicken broth and salt. Cook the broth for one minute, until it reduces by half, and then add the spinach. Toss and turn the spinach for 2 or 3 minutes, or until it wilts and is cooked. Add the cooked spaghetti, and stir it until thoroughly coated with the other ingredients. Stir in the cheese just before serving.

Pasta e Fagiole

(Pasta with Beans)

Yield: 3 quarts

1 pound dried cannellini beans

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup diced ham

1/2 cup diced onion

1/2 cup dice celery

1/2 cup diced carrots

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon crushed hot pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3 quarts chicken broth

12 ounces ditalini

1/2 cup grated Romano cheese

Place the beans in a bowl, cover them with warm water and allow them to soak for 2 hours. Heat the olive oil in a heavy sauce pan and add the ham, onion, celery, carrots, garlic, hot pepper, rosemary, salt, and pepper; sauté for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Drain and discard the water from the beans and add them to the simmering stock. Simmer the beans for 1 hour or until they are soft. Add the pasta and cook it for an additional 20 minutes or until the beans and the pasta are thoroughly cooked. Serve as an appetizer or a main course sprinkled with the grated cheese.

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