The Joy of Pasta

Pasta can be considered the universal food. It is made from eggs, flour, and salt. It can be made in any number of shapes. It can be served hot or cold and with any of a variety of sauces and ingredients. While pasta is filled with complex carbohydrates, it can be as healthy or as decadent as one wishes, depending on what one serves on it.

A History of Pasta

Marco Polo, the great Venetian explorer, is said to have introduced pasta to Italy from China. This is a pleasant, romantic story without much basis in fact. There is some evidence that a form of pasta was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The 1st Century AD Roman writer Apicius describes a kind of pasta, roasted in an oven like pizza dough,
called “lagana” which was used to layer meat and fish and sounds suspiciously like modern lasagna. Some scholars believe that the first use of pasta in the west dates back as far as the Etruscans, based on carvings on ancient tombs,
but this theory is in dispute.

Pasta cooked by boiling seems to have been introduced to Sicily by Arab conquerors. The Arabs used dried pasta as a portable stable, since it preserved very well. The Italians developed the idea of cooking and eating fresh pasta, using it with sauces, and baking it as lasagna. Around the year 1000, we have the first documented recipe for pasta in the book “De arte Coquinaria per vermicelli e macaroni siciliani” or “The Art of Cooking Sicilian macaroni and Vermicelli” written by Martino Corno, chef to the powerful Patriarch of Aquileia. In 1279, a Genoese soldier listed as part of his estate ‘una
bariscella plena de macaronis’ or a basket of macaroni.

Of course, Marco Polo did encounter a form of pasta in China. The Chinese had been eating it since at least 3000 BC. Noodles, some made with rice rather than wheat, are a staple of eastern cuisine even today.

Pasta spread in popularity in the 14th and 15th Centuries, as it was simple to make and, in dried form, very portable. It could be stored on ships, such as the ones that set sail to explore the New World. Around this time, various new shapes of pasta are mentioned in the records of Dominican monasteries in Italy.

The next great pasta innovation occurred when it was married to the New World discovery, the tomato. Tomato sauce, in
a sense, altered the history of pasta forever. The first recipe for tomatoes with pasta wasn’t written until 1839, however, when Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, offered a recipe for ‘Vermicelli co le pommodoro.’ A mere thirty years later, La Cuciniera Genovese offered recipes for purÃ?©es, soups, distinctly different sauces for meats, chicken, veal and pasta.

T

here is some evidence that Thomas Jefferson first introduced of pasta to America. He discovered the wonderful food while serving as Ambassador to France. He regularly served macaroni to his friends who dined with him at Monticello
and even invented a pasta making machine on his own. Pasta was first introduced commercially in Brooklyn by a Frenchman, however.

The 19th Century and early 20th Century, with the industrial revolution, saw the growth of mechanized production of pasta of all kinds. In 1917, Fereol Sandragne patented the first system for continuous pasta production.

Macaroni and cheese was a popular dish in America at the time of the Civil War, however, the huge Italian immigration that entered the US around the 1900’s brought the popular spaghetti dishes we eat today, mostly from the Campania area. Today American pasta is made from semolina, which is often produced by grinding kernels of durum wheat. The semolina is mixed with water to form a dough. Other ingredients, such as eggs, spinach, or tomato, may be added as well. The dough is kneaded, and then pushed through a metal disc with holes in it. The shape of the holes determines the shape of the pasta. When the pasta is the right length, it is cut with sharp blades. Then it is slowly dried in special machines that circulate hot, moist air. Finally the dried pasta is packed in boxes or bags.

How to Make Pasta at Home

Pasta of all shapes, from the familiar spaghetti to more exotic kinds like rotini, which is shaped like a spiral, is available at super markets. They come dried, fresh, and made with extra ingredients like tomato or spinach. Pasta can also be made at home.

A simple recipe for fresh pasta calls for two large eggs and about 1-1/4 cups of all-purpose flour with a pinch of salt. To make the dough by hand, make a well in the flour on a clean, flat surface. Break the eggs into the well and add the salt. Working with a fork, begin incorporating flour into the eggs at the center. Once it becomes too difficult to keep mixing with the fork, you’ll have a dough, which should be kneaded by hand for several minutes. The idea is that by the end of the kneading one should have a well-formed, elastic dough that is as smooth as a baby’s skin.

That done, one should divide the dough into six parts. If one has a pasta machine, follow the instructions for the machine to create the pasta desired with the dough. Else, one can flatten each of the parts of dough with a floured rolling pin and then cut the flattened dough into strips and dry them on wax paper. Remember that fresh pasta cooks much quicker than the dried kind one buys at the store.

Pasta Shapes

Pasta comes in a wide variety of shapes. Macaroni is a very versatile shape that can be topped with any sauce, baked, or put in soups, salads and stir-fry dishes. Rotini has twisted shape that holds bits of meat, vegetables and cheese, so it works well with any sauce, or you can use it to create fun salads, baked casseroles, or stir-fry meals. Angel Hair has thin, delicate strands that are best used with thinner, delicate sauces. Jumbo Shells are best when stuffed with ones
favorite mixtures of cheese, meat and vegetables. Medium Shells make a great addition to soups or as the base of a wonderful salad. Bow Ties are thick enough for any sauce, or can be made into a salad or soup. Wide Egg Noodles are made with a traditional stroganoff, but are also good with soups, salads, and casseroles. Spaghetti, of course, is the
universal favorite and is served with a variety of sauces. Fettuccine
is perfect for heavier sauces, like cheese, meat and tomato sauces. Vermicelli is slightly thinner than Spaghetti, and is good topped with any sauce, or as a salad or a stir-fry ingredient. Penne is a tubular pasta that goes well with sauce. It is also used in salads, baked in casseroles, or made
into stir fry dishes. Lasagne, also a great favorite, is used to bake a delicious pie that traditionally layers meat and various cheeses. It can be done vegetarian style too, or with other kinds of meat like groundturkey. Ziti is a medium-sized, tubular pasta shape and is perfect for chunky sauces and meat dishes. Linguine has a great shape for all sauces.

Pasta Sauces

The number and variety of pasta sauces are limited only by one’s imagination. One can simply toss pasta with olive oil and roasted garlic to make a healthy meal. Add in some other vegetables, such as broccoli, peas, or carrots for some more variety and health benefit.

Fettuccine Alfredo is made by adding heavy whipped cream, parmesan cheese, and pepper to the cooked fettuccine. Tomato or marinara sauce is also a traditional favorite with spaghetti and other pastas.

A good pasta sauce, better enjoyed for its taste than its health benefits, can be prepared thus:

Chop one large onion and two bell peppers (green or other) and saut�© in olive oil in a large, iron skillet. Add one pound ground beef and a package of sliced sweet or hot Italian sausages. When brown, add 60 ounces of canned tomato sauce. Add garlic powder, oregano, red pepper, and other spices of your choice to taste. Add a half cup or so of red wine. Mix well with a large spoon. Simmer for several hours. Use as topping fro your favorite pasta.

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