Not All Pasta is Created Equal

By Francine Segan, author of Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy(Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

how to select pasta, francine segan, the three tomatoes

There are dozens of different brands of pasta on the supermarket shelf. But isn’t pasta just water & flour? Aren’t they all basically the same? Are some better than others? Italians will say “Si, si!—YES, there’s a huge difference!” 

how to select pasta, francine segan, the three tomatoes

Chefs in Italy squeeze it, pinch it, sniff it all before they serve it. 

selecting pasta, francine segan, the three tomatoes

How can we Americans learn to spot the best pasta?

In Italy there’s an expression, “When it comes to pasta, you can fool some people. Even some Italians. But you can’t fool a Neapolitan.” So I traveled to Naples, Italy to eat lots of pasta and find out. I spent a day at one of the areas most renowned pasta companies–Garofalo www.pastagarofalo.it/us/ to learn all I could about pasta-making.

I met with the great team of experts there including Luca de Luca, Gianni Schisa and Flavia Garzia.  Here’s what I learned:

Ways to Spot Superior Pasta

When raw, it should:

1-be a pretty yellow color, like semolina flour

2-smell like wheat

3-be uniform in size and shape, with no broken bits

4- break it in half cleanly, without little piecdes falling off here and there

When cooked, it should:

1-taste great, even plain!

2-smell great

3-absord the sauce & remain firm to the last bite

Interestingly, if the sauce slides off, it’s a sign that the pasta was not properly dried.  The pasta maker likely rushed the drying by using too high a temperature, which causes the pasta’s starch to form a sort of glaze on the pasta, making it shiny and impenetrable for sauces.

Do your very own pasta contest at home!

It’s easiest to see the difference using spaghetti, so select an artisan imported Italian pasta, like Garofalo (PHOTO, garofalo assortment), and a bargain brand.

-1- Fill two separate pots with exactly the same amount of water and salt and bring to a boil. So that it’s a blind test, ask a friend to help so you don’t know which pasta is which. Have your friend put in exactly the same amount of pasta to each pot. After a minute or two stir the pastas and take a whiff of the water. Which pasta has a fresh wheat aroma?

-2- Once the pasta is al dente, drain, and test its ability to absorb sauce. Put a few strands of each into two different bowls with a little water and after several minutes note which pasta absorbed more water.  That’s means it will better absorb sauce and is the better pasta.

-3- Then pinch both types of pasta between your thumb and index finger. The inferior pasta will be gummy to the touch and soft in the middle, while the better pasta stays al dente.

-4- Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!

Once you pick the winner of your pasta contest you can try this terrific recipe from Naples. This sauce is actually a pureed vegetable—healthy and perfect for vegans:

Silky Escarole Pine Nut Pappardelle

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Silky Escarole Pine Nut Pappardelle  

From: Pasta Modern by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Serves 4 to 6

Escarole, with its broad, tender, pale green leaves, makes a gorgeous sauce that gets an added boost from olives, salty capers, tingly chili peppers and crunchy toasted nuts. Nothing is more simple and elegant.

Here it’s tossed with pappardelle, fabulous wide, long noodles, whose name comes from the Italian word pappare, “to gobble up,” but its fabulous with any pasta.

  •  1/2 head escarole
  • Salt
  • Olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 small fresh red chili pepper, thinly sliced, to taste
  • 12 pitted black oil-cured Gaeta olives, halved
  • 2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed
  • 1 pound pappardelle or any pasta, preferrably Garofalo brand
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

 Using a large pot, bring salted water to a boil. Wash and roughly chop the escarole, and blanch in the boiling water for about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, reserving the cooking water.

 Puree the warm escarole with 3 tablespoons of oil and the garlic in a food processor until very smooth and silky.  Stir in the chili to taste, olives, and capers.

 Meanwhile, bring the cooking water back to a boil, add the pappardelle and cook until al dente. Drain and toss with the escarole mixture. Serve topped with pine nuts.

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