Pasta can be perplexing.
It can be found in nearly every shape imaginable - a snake, a tunnel, a bow tie, a radiator, a curlicue or even a wagon wheel.
"There's so many different types of pasta out there," says Michael Beard, executive chef at Teller's, 746 Mass. "I think Italians just change how they make it so they can call them theirs."
Ever wonder how to pick the right pasta for your meal? Beard, who studied culinary arts for more than a year in Italy, says there are some simple guidelines.
Most dry pastas available at the grocery store are made with a mix of water, salt and semolina, a coarsely ground wheat. That means the decision is more about shape and texture than taste.
In general, he says, the heavier the sauce, the heavier the pasta you want to use. You don't want a heavy sauce overwhelming a light pasta such as angel hair.
But shape also is a consideration. Tubular pastas, such as rigatoni or shells, trap sauces better than, say, farfalle, which is shaped like bow ties. That could help collect more of lighter sauces in every bite.
And texture also is a factor. Pasta with ridges, such as penne rigate, collects sauce better than smooth tubular pasta, such as ziti. There are special pastas on the market, created using bronze forms, that have more texture than the commonly found pastas made with stainless steel forms.
"The guideline is the smaller the width, the lighter the sauce," Beard says, "and the thicker or heavier the pasta, the thicker or heavier the sauce. You just kind of think about what your sauce is going to be - the consistency - and what would be best to hold your sauce."
But that doesn't mean you have to be held to certain rules. Robert Lake, chef at Marisco's, 4821 W. Sixth St., says it's really about an individual's taste.
"It's personal preference," Lake says. "It's like pizza to me. There are limitless options and combinations - whatever you want to come up with."
That means a baked ziti dish could be made with another type of pasta, just to mix things up. The same holds true for traditional spaghetti and meatballs.
Beard suggests cooking pasta with plenty of salt, to give it more flavor. And he warns against overcooking pasta. Instead, he suggests taking it out just before it reaches "al dente" status and finish cooking it in your sauce.
For a special touch, he suggests cooking with barchette pasta, which is a type of medium-sized shell. It can be stuffed with meat or cheese to be something like ravioli, and then paired with a sauce.
"It gives your guests a warm feeling when you do more than just make a pasta," Beard says. "It's pretty easy to put pasta in water and pop a can of whatever (sauce) you want to. But doing more shows your guests you put a little thought into it."
Chicken and Broccoli Pasta Dijon
1 pound mostaccioli, penne or other medium pasta shape, uncooked
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
3 cups broccoli florets
1 large red bell pepper, cut into short, thin strips
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 12-ounce can evaporated skim milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Prepare pasta according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, toss chicken with salt, pepper and garlic. Coat a large non-stick skillet with cooking spray; place over medium-high heat until hot. Add chicken mixture; stir-fry 4 to 5 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from skillet and place in a medium bowl.
Add broccoli, red pepper and chicken broth to skillet. Cover; simmer over medium heat 5 to 6 minutes or until vegetables are tender-crisp. Transfer to bowl with chicken. In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the milk with cornstarch, mixing until smooth. Add to skillet with remaining milk; bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat; stir in mustard. Stir in reserved chicken mixture.
When pasta is done, drain well. Toss with chicken mixture. Serve immediately with additional freshly ground pepper, if desired.
Baked Shells with Mushroom Cream
1 pound medium or small shells, uncooked
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 1/2 cups milk, divided
1/2 cup chicken broth, homemade or canned
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup frozen peas, defrosted
1 4-ounce can sliced mushrooms, drained
1/4 cup sliced pimentos
2 cups diced cooked chicken (optional)
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for passing
1/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
Prepare pasta according to package directions; drain. Rinse the pasta under cold running water until cool and drain thoroughly.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In small bowl, stir together the cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of the milk until the cornstarch is dissolved. Heat the remaining milk and the chicken broth in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and heat, stirring, until the sauce is simmering and thickened. Add the salt and pepper and simmer 3 minutes. Pour the sauce into a bowl, add the peas, mushrooms, pimentos, chicken (if using), 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese and the cooked pasta. Stir the sauce in until it and the vegetables are evenly distributed. Transfer to a baking dish.
Stir 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese and the bread crumbs together in a small bowl and sprinkle the mixture over the pasta. Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the topping is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve hot, passing additional grated Parmesan cheese if desired.
Angel Hair with Shrimp Sesame Sauce
8 ounces angel hair (capellini), uncooked
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons chutney
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1 pound frozen medium shrimp, thawed
Prepare pasta according to package directions; two minutes before pasta is done, add asparagus pieces. When pasta and asparagus are done, drain. Place oil, garlic and mushrooms in a 2-quart saucepan. Saute for 3 to 4 minutes. Add soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar, chutney, toasted sesame seeds, scallions and vinegar. Simmer for 3 to 5 minutes. Add shrimp to the sauce and cook for another 5 to 8 minutes. Toss shrimp and sauce with pasta and asparagus and serve.
Rigatoni with Zucchini
2 small to medium zucchini, cut into julienne strips about 1â2 inch thick
1 small red onion, chopped
1 medium red sweet pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
8 pitted kalamata olives, chopped
4 sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tablespoon capers
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
Salt & pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes (optional)
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
1â4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 pound rigatoni pasta
Grated Parmesan cheese to serve
Heat a large pot of salted water for the pasta, and while you are waiting prepare the sauce. In a medium pan, heat the olive oil until hot. Add the onion, red pepper and zucchini and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a minute or two more. Add the wine, sun-dried tomato, olives, capers, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes if using, and simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Add the chopped basil and parsley and mix.
Drain the pasta, reserving a small cup of pasta water, and return the pasta to the pot. Add the sauce and cook over medium high heat stirring constantly for a couple of minutes until piping hot. If the pasta seems a little dry, add a teaspoon or two of the pasta water. Serve the pasta, offering grated parmesan cheese for the top.
Nonna's Spaghetti and Meatball Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
2 or 3 small pieces of meat (Pork, Beef, or Chicken)
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup chopped basil
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 tablespoon dried thyme
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Dash of red pepper flakes (optional)
2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
1 large can pureed tomatoes
About 5 cups water
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound of spaghetti or pasta of choice
Brown the meat pieces in the oil until well browned. Add the garlic, onion, and celery and saute until tender. Add the paste, tomatoes, water and herbs, and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper to your own personal taste. Turn mixture down to a simmer, then drop the prepared meatballs into the sauce. Do not stir for the first 15 minutes or so until the meatballs begin to firm up.
Continue to cook for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, and adding extra water as needed if the sauce becomes too thick. This sauce, with or without the meatballs can now be used over your pasta of choice. Just before serving, stir the 3 tablespoons of grated cheese into the sauce. Though most people would choose spaghetti, personally I prefer rigatoni or penne. Serve over pasta cooked al dente, and offer a little more parmesan cheese at the table. With the addition of a nice mixed salad and some crusty Italian bread, this pasta dish would easily make a complete meal. I would choose a robust Chianti wine to accompany this meal.
To make meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork or veal
Salt and pepper
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1/2 cup water
Add the bread crumbs to the water to moisten. Mix all the ingredients together with the bread crumb mixture. Shape into golf ball sized balls, and gently drop into the simmering sauce.