A couple of years ago, my daughter married a very fine Italian gentleman. Cesare, (pronounced Chay-sar-ray) is not just of Italian ancestry but is from Gorgonzola, Italy, a town near Milan. He and daughter Clare live in Austin, Texas where Cesare is a professor of finance at The University of Texas.
Given my interest in food, having a new Italian family opens up some wonderful experiences for us. Since the happy union of our children, Cesare’s parents, Celestina and Gianni have visited Texas several times. (The name Celestina means little heaven. Gianni is pronounced as we would say Johnny only with an Italian accent.) On one of their visits to East Texas, Celestina made pasta from scratch. That’s right, there are people in the world who do not eat dried pasta but literally make it from flour and water! And on this particular occasion, I had Italians in my kitchen making pasta!
Many Italians have mechanical pasta making machines just like people in the states have bread making machines or blenders. And while we looked on in wonder, Celestina made the dough and fed it through the machine while Gianni slowly cranked out fresh pasta for that evening’s dinner. Watching them work together it was obvious that they had done this activity thousands of times. For the Italians, food is a central part of family life. Not just eating but the whole process of being together in the kitchen and enjoying the moments we create at home.
You don’t have to have Italians in your kitchen or even fresh made pasta to create a family moment. At pennies per serving, pasta is both affordable and versatile. With so many sizes and shapes available, you can literally eat pasta everyday and never make it the same twice. And pasta is a very nutritious food containing all the nutrients we get from grains including vitamins like folate and niacin, minerals such as iron, selenium and manganese, carbohydrate, protein and fiber. It is low in sodium and it is a cholesterol free food.
Follow one basic rule when cooking pasta. Don’t overcook it. Start with boiling water. Add the pasta, stir to separate and cook for exactly the number of minutes specified on the package for that pasta. Different sizes and shapes require different cooking times. Fresh pasta takes less time to cook than dried. When your timer goes off, have your colander ready and drain the pasta to stop it from cooking. Some even suggest running cold water over it to insure that the pasta is not over cooked. So what’s the big deal about overcooking pasta?
From a culinary standpoint, “mushy” pasta just isn’t as appetizing. Good pasta is served al dente, an Italian term that roughly translates into “firm to the bite”. Molto al dente or “more firm” is the culinary term for slightly undercooked pasta. One would undercook pasta if it were to be used in a recipe where it would be cooked twice such as including the cooked pasta in a sauté or soup.
There is also a nutritional benefit to al dente pasta. The glycemic index of a food refers to how fast that food is digested and converted into blood sugar. The faster a food is digested, the more rapid the rise in blood sugar. Overcooked pasta has a high glycemic index which raises blood sugar faster. Pasta that is cooked al dente has a lower glycemic index.
Choose different pastas to add to sautés, salads or soups or serve them with a variety of sauces. The recipe Chicken Pasta Fantastica is a good example of an easy to prepare one dish meal. Whatever your tastes don’t get stuck in the spaghetti rut. Celestina made a delicious Pesto Lasagna, a regional dish from Northern Italy. Explore some different pastas and recipes and enjoy the adventure of creative cooking. Bringing new dishes to the table will provide yet another reason for the kids to come home for dinner. Better yet, invite some Italians to your house and see what happens.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.