Americans consumed almost 6 billion pounds of pasta in 2020. That is almost 20 pounds per person. That may seem like a lot, but it is only about one-third of the per capita consumption in Italy. Recent studies have shown that 59% percent of Americans eat some form of pasta every week.
These numbers might surprise you in light of the fact that so many popular diets encourage you not to eat anything containing flour or gluten or anything that might be high in carbohydrates, whether they are complex carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates. I understand that there are some people with health conditions that should limit their intake of carbohydrates. But most of us do not fall into that category.
Pasta is made from grains and as such should be part of a healthy diet.
Did you know that dried pasta, cooked correctly, is lower on the glycemic index than oatmeal? The glycemic index is a value given to foods that increase blood glucose levels. The higher the glycemic index the faster your blood sugar rises. A study published in Nutrition and Diabetes demonstrated that adults who ate a traditional Mediterranean diet, which is primarily a plant-based diet with lots of pasta, vegetables, seafood, whole grains and olive oil, were actually thinner, with smaller waistlines, than the population who followed different eating patterns.
Pasta has a rich history. We have all heard the story that Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy in the 1200s. This is a great story that would be even better if it were true. Pasta was already present in Italy in Marco Polo’s time. There is evidence of pasta in Etrusco-Roman times around the first century A.D. That pasta, made from the same durum wheat that we make pasta with today, did not bear much resemblance to today’s pasta. It was a flat noodle called “lagane”, which later became known as lasagna. It was baked rather than boiled. Boiled pasta did not come around until the ninth century.
It was very labor-intensive to make, so it became a food of the rich. It was often seasoned with sweeteners, cinnamon and raisins. It would take another 500 years for pasta to become food for the masses. In the 14th century, machines to make pasta became available and the rest is history.
When we think of spaghetti, we also think of tomato sauce. The first mention of tomato sauce with pasta did not occur until 1844. Tomatoes, which were brought to Italy from the new world, were thought to be poisonous.
Today, there are over 300 shapes of dried pasta. While I am generally a proponent of buying American, when it comes to dried pasta, Italian pasta is the way to go. By Italian law, pasta must be made from 100% durum wheat. This is the wheat that has been used for hundreds of years. Inferior dried pasta is made with a variety of wheats. The best pasta is made by extruding the shapes through copper molds. These molds are expensive and prone to wear, so inferior pasta makers extrude their shapes through steel dies. Great Italian pastas are dried very slowly, at times approaching 50 hours. Inferior pastas are dried very quickly and with a lot of heat.
Does any of this make a difference? In a word, yes. Great Italian dried pasta cooks faster, has a better mouthfeel and holds onto the sauce better than inferior dried pasta.
Cooking dried pasta is easy, but there are a few rules that must be followed to make an exceptional dish.
Use lots of water. Use more water than you think appropriate and your pasta will not stick together. Unless you are cooking lasagna noodles, never add oil to the water.
Use lots of salt in the water. Great dried pasta is not made with salt. The boiling water is the only opportunity to season the pasta.
Cook the pasta al dente. The pasta should be tender but should still have a little bite to it. The pasta will continue to cook as you add it to the sauce. Most people cook their pasta too long.
Never rinse your pasta. The best dried pasta is not smooth. It has little ridges that are there to help the sauce cling to the noodles. Rinsing removes the starch that clings to those ridges, and your sauce ends up on the bottom of the plate rather than clinging to the pasta.
Reserve at least a cup of the cooking water. It will help tighten the sauce in the final steps of finishing your dish.
We have only touched the surface of pastas. In future columns, we will delve into sauces and which pastas should be used with which sauces. We also will discuss making pasta at home. It is much easier than you might think.
For today, I have included a very simple pasta dish, shrimp scampi in a light lemon sauce.