Pasta is one of Italy’s most basic foods, but it is also one of its most versatile. With just the simplest of steps, regular pasta dishes can quickly be transformed. Read our top ten tips and tricks to take your pasta to the next level.
Make your own
Although good quality dried pasta is increasingly easy to find, it still doesn’t compare with homemade fresh pasta. Making it from scratch gives you the freedom to experiment with different shapes, colours and flavours and cook authentic Italian recipes with pasta varieties that can’t be bought in the shops. If you own a pasta machine, making fresh pasta is surprisingly easy and can be relatively quick with a bit of practice. But if you don’t have one, don’t let that stop you – a heavy rolling pin will get the job done with a bit of muscle, and if it's good enough for millions of Italian nonnas, it’s certainly good enough for us.
Add a Touch of Colour
The beautiful golden yellow colour of pasta is so ingrained in our minds that something different always makes for a fun surprise. The most commonly used pasta colours are black (flavoured with cuttlefish or squid ink), green (flavoured with spinach) and red (flavoured with tomato). Adding cuttlefish or squid ink to your pasta dough creates a particularly dramatic effect.
Incorporate New Flavours
Coloured pasta looks fantastic, but tends to only add a subtle flavour to the finished pasta. To add a more punchy flavour, try adding finely chopped herbs to your dough. A wide variety can be used, but it works best when matched with the ingredients in the pasta’s accompanying sauce.
Boil, Grill or Bake
Pasta can be cooked in a number of ways and doesn’t just have to be boiled. Many Italian chefs par-cook their pasta and then finish it in the sauce, often with a few tablespoons of the starchy cooking water. This allows the pasta to absorb some of the flavour, while the water helps to emulsify the sauce. Another option is using a grill to give your pasta a crunchy texture; you can par-cook lasagne sheets and places them under a grill until puffed up and golden brown.
Stuffed pasta is a great way to use up leftover ingredients and is always fun to put together. Ravioli and tortellini are the most well-known shapes, but most regions throughout Italy have their own unique shapes and fillings.
There are many clever ways of substituting pasta for other ingredients. Spiralized vegetables are particularly popular right now due to their numerous health benefits; try adding courgetti or spiralized carrot to your pesto or tomato sauce for a healthy pasta alternative.
Give Gluten the Boot
Gluten-free pasta has come a long way in the last few years and is now stocked by all major supermarkets. If you have a gluten-intolerance or simply want to avoid it, why not have a go at making your own?
Don’t knock Gnocchi
Gnocchi on a top ten pasta list? Although not pasta in the traditional sense, many do choose to classify gnocchi in the same group on the basis that the recipe uses the same ingredients, usually with added potato. However you define them, gnocchi is just as versatile as regular pasta and can be used interchangeably with most sauces. For best results, gnocchi should be shaped while the potatoes are still hot to avoid a claggy, chewy finish. This means gnocchi is much quicker to prepare than pasta, as the dough requires no resting time.
Pasta doesn’t always need to be the star of the show. Drop a handful into your soup to add some bulk and turn it into more of a substantial meal. The classic Italian wedding soup is a meal in a bowl and features Tortelli, swiss chard and sliced mortadella in a rich meaty broth. A warming bowl of Minestrone is one of the ultimate comfort foods.
There are over 350 different pasta shapes (at least), so why limit yourself to a select few? Italian chefs use a variety of pasta shapes rarely seen outside of Italy, such as tagliolini, fusilloni and mlinci. Traditional pasta recipes use shapes that best match their accompanying sauce – for example, tubular pasta is generally used with thicker, more chunky sauces, while long, thin kinds of pasta work best with looser, olive oil-based sauces.
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Picture Courtesy: Lorenzo Cogo, Rosanna Marziale, GreatItalianChefs, Alessandro Gavagna, Igles Corelli, Mauro Uliassi, Antonio Carluccio, Luca Marchiori, Giuseppe D'Aquino