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Italy, the nation of artists, saints, sailors and great cooks and of course, the haven for pizzas and pastas. The best of Italian food combines fresh ingredients with simple cooking techniques. Meats, fish and vegetables are flavoured with herbs and olive oil, and often grilled or baked. Aromatic sauces can often be assembled in the time it takes pasta to boil. A great deal of Italian food comes from peasant heritage. The Italian diet, which is high in vegetables and carbohydrates and low in animal fats, is considered to be a healthy one enhanced as it is by extra-virgin olive oil, pasta and beans.

In Italy, pasta and gnocchi are traditionally served as first course after the antipasti and before the second course of fish or meat. Everyday dishes are often simple, served with nothing more than olive oil or butter, grated parmesan and basil. Outside of Italy there are no hard and fast rules, and nowadays people eat pasta and gnocchi whenever they like. I1 primo, as the pasta course is known, is eaten between the antipasto (appetizer) and i1 secondo (the main course). Sometimes small pasta shapes are served in soup as pasta in brood. 

Pasta comes in many shapes and forms. Pasta can look as mundane as long thin rods or it could be ingenuity personified looking like stuffed hats, snails, shells, wheels and even cock’s comb! Classically, there are two basic types of pasta, pastasciutta (dried) and pasta fresca (fresh).

Fresh pasta is commonly made with a mixture of eggs and all-purpose flour. Since, it contains eggs, it has a short shelf life and it is tender compared to the dried pasta. Fresh pasta does not expand in size after cooking. Delicate sauces are preferred with fresh pasta so that the fresh pasta is the dominant ingredient.

Dried pasta is also called factory-made pasta because it is generally mass produced using machines. Dried pasta is normally prepared by mixing golden semolina flour, wheat flour and water. Dried pastas are best served in hearty dishes like ragu sauces and casseroles. Dried pastas are better for storage, since they have a longer shelf life compared to the fresh pasta.

Dried or Fresh Pasta enter into the wonderful world of pasta shapes. The following long list of various shapes of pastas is a living testimony of its popularity. By all means it is not a complete list, since regional parlances are still in the innovative mode to expand the list even further. 

Distinctive Shapes

Name                                  Description Interpretation
Conchiglie Seashell shaped Shells
Conchiglioni Large, stuffable seashell-shaped Large shells
Creste di Galli Short, curved and ruffled Cocks’ combs
Farfalle Bow tie or butterfly shaped Butterflies
Gnocchi Round in shape and often made with flour plus potatoes From the Italian gnocco, meaning “a knot in wood”
Rotelle Wagon wheel-shaped pasta Little wheels (from ruota-wheel)
Spirali A tube which spirals round Spirals

 

Tubular/Hollow Pasta

Name

Description Interpretation
Bucatini Hollow spaghetti Little holes
Cannelloni Large stuffable tubes Big pipes
Cavatappi Corkscrew-shaped macaroni Corkscrews; also known as Cellentani
Gomito Maccheroni Bent tubes Elbow macaroni
Penne Medium length tubes with ridges, cut diagonally at both ends Literally “pens” or fountain pen

 

Strand/String-like Pasta

Name

Description Interpretation
Spaghettoni Thick string Thick with little twine
Spaghetti Most common round-rod pasta Spago means twine, spaghetti is plural
Spaghettini Thin spaghetti Thin little twine
Vermicelloni Thick vermicelli Thick little worms

 

Ribbon Pasta

Name

Description Interpretation
Fettuccine Ribbon of pasta approximately 6.5 millimeters wide Little ribbons
Lasagne Very wide noodles that often have fluted edges Cooking pot

 

Micro Pasta

Name

Description Interpretation
Farfalline mini bow tie shaped pasta Either bowties or little butterflies
Funghini mini mushroom shaped pasta small mushrooms
Stelle tiny star-shaped pasta Stars

 

Stuffed Pasta

Name

Description Interpretation
Cannelloni Oven cooked, stuffed rolls of pasta Big tubes
Fagottini A ‘purse’ or bundle of pasta, made from a round of dough gathered into a ball-shaped bundle, often stuffed with ricotta and fresh pear Little purses
Ravioli Stuffed with cheese, pureed vegetables, ground meat or mixtures  
Tortellini Ring-shaped. Stuffed with a mixture of vegetables, cheese and meat   

 

Mind boggling shapes and sizes, right? And you thought “pasta” just a humble little dish from Italy! Think again, thankfully you don’t have to brood hard over the delicious pasta recipes I have in mind…just go for it! Happy cooking adventures! 

Cooking Tips

  • Cooking pasta correctly needs guidance in estimating the cooking time. It is better not to rely of the package to give you the correct cooking time. It is only a guideline.
  • Start timing when the water returns to a boil. Most pastas cook in 8-12 minutes. It is difficult to give exact cooking times since different shapes and thickness of pasta will take less or more time to cook.
  • Pasta should be tender but still firm when you eat it, what the Italians call "al dente. Pasta will continue to cook and soften even after it has been taken from the water. (For baked dishes, because the pasta is cooked twice (boiled first and then combined with other ingredients and cooked in the oven), pasta should be boiled for less time than normal.)
  • Drain immediately into a large colander standing in the sink, and then pick up the colander with its contents and shake it well to remove excess water.
  • Do not rinse unless the recipe says to do so. The starch that makes the pasta stick to itself also helps the sauce stick to the pasta. If the pasta is going to be tossed into the sauce immediately, then sticking should not be a problem.
  • Do rinse the wide pasta, such as lasagne sheets. If one does not rinse them then it is hard time separating the sheets without damaging them.
  • Also rinse when making a cold pasta salad. The thin coat of starch on the pasta will be sticky when cold.

Discovery of Pasta

Who invented pasta, where and when? This is a contentious issue and very much a matter of culinary debate for the food Guru’s to contemplate. Of course various theories have been surfacing, from time to time. Till date, loyal Marco Polo fans are holding on to the belief that pasta originated in China and their great hero brought it back to Venice. From there it spread throughout Italy and later to the rest of Europe. This resilient fable, which necessitates that nothing should have been identified of pasta in Italy until 1295, when Marco Polo returned from his Far East expedition can be easily proved wrong, by citing recorded references in Italy to pasta of a prior date. In 1279 Genoa-Italy, foot soldiers in their inventory, listed dried pasta storage (i.e.'unabariscella plena de macaronis' to be exact), so that takes care of this myth. Marco Polo did make some real contribution with respect to introducing foods; especially of Asian foods to Europe.

According to another set of European food historians, stuffed pastas (i.e. lasagne, ravioli) are a medieval invention dating back to 1100 BC. In the European-Christian cultures they were served with different melted cheeses especially during the religious meat-abstaining days.

Even though different combinations of pasta and cheese were relished by the ancient cooks, the varied innovative “Avatars” of this particular dish is commonly attributed to Alfredo's (restaurant) in Rome, 1915. Why? Alfred Di Lelio, with a little help from the Hollywood big-shots, made it famous world-wide.

The globally famous word “pasta” originated in Italy in 1154 and it’s a Latin word, which translates to "dough, pastry cake. 

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MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal www.sanjeevkapoor.com is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.