The Food: Pasta

History of Pasta
Italians have been enjoying pasta since the 1100s.  It was not "rediscovered by Marco Polo" and then brought back from China to Venice, due to some popular (but inaccurate) beliefs.  If anything, it was invented both by Sicily (and/or in the area of Sicily) AND China AROUND the same time. But a closer look reveals that the ancient Romans used it to pay tribute to the Gods.  Ever notice that Southern Italian food (example: Sicily, Calabria) has more pasta dishes, while Northern Italian dishes have more meat for stews, risotto and dishes that are not "pasta based".  The art of cooking by Apicius, who lived in the 1st Century AD, writes about the preparation of a mince or fish dish lined with 'lasagne'.  Types of pasta like lasagna were also know in Ancient Greece and Rome, and vermicelli in medieval Italy.  Today, Americans eat 20lbs. of pasta per year per person, but Italians eat over 60lbs per person each year.

Types of Pasta
Which is best?  It is like saying which wine is best? Red, White or Rose?  It really depends on the occassion. I personally like the dried pasta the best, not just because I grew up with it, but because it cooks up the way I like best, "al dente" (a bit firmer).  Homemade is fine, but I usually make my own too thick, and sometimes its too thin/mushy (that I have had).  Fresh is fine for certain things, but overall, dried is the most common and for me it works best, but here you have your 3 basic types:

Homemade: Usually fresh unless its dried by the maker, but best served fresh.
Fresh: Less cooking time, it is usually "soft" already when it is taken from the package.
Dried: Longer cooking time and is "hard" when it comes from the package. The Sicilians originally invented the art of drying the pasta for long voyages. So if you really wanted to take it back that far, a thousand years or so, anything dried is actually Sicilian.  Soon the region of Naples came up with their own method of drying pasta.  Naturally, all pasta is originally made fresh, but when they dry it today, it is usually in a climate-controlled room where the humidity is low and the temperature is 104F in the room to help it dry quicker.

Pasta Trivia
Which are the top 10 best selling pasta shapes?
1)  Spaghetti   2)  Twists   3)  Assorted Shapes   4)  Lasagna   5)  Shells
6)  Tagliatelle   7)  Noodles   8)  Macaroni   9)  Tortellini   10) Cannelloni

Making Your Own Pasta
Pasta you can make on your own.  You just need one egg per 100 grams of flour.

Cooking Pasta
When cooking dry pasta, it is important to cook it "al dente", al dente, in Italian, literally translated "to the tooth", which means to cook not until mushy, but not raw either -- firm enough to still have a little firmness when you bite into it.  There are several reasons for this.  First off, mushy pasta is not very good, secondly, this is how the real Italians in Italy make it, firm, but not raw, and lastly, it is proven, that pasta cooked al dente is not digested as fast, and therefore you are less likely to "bulk up" due to the carbohydrates.  So eating pasta need not be fattening, just cook it right!  Tubular pasta takes longer to cook than long thin pasta.  Also, you want to stir your pasta every few minutes, more so when you first start cooking it to keep it from sticking together.  Most of the starches are released from the pasta in the beginning stages of cooking, so then is when you especially want to be sure to stir it gently to avoid pasta from clumping together.  The only time you really want to add olive oil for any reason, is when you are cooking lasagna, these pieces of pasta are so big that they need a little extra help to keep them from sticking.  One thing you should never do is rinse your pasta, there is just no reason for it.  Some think it is to take the salt off, others think to keep it from cooking, but both are incorrect.

To drain or not to drain
Many feel that you should not drain the pasta until it is bone dry before you add sauce to it.  Others feel that the flavor of the water that the pasta has boiled and cooked in adds to the flavor.  My theory is simple: if your sauce is too thick, drain the pasta, but not until all the water is all out, just drain, retaining some of the pasta water, and add to the pan of sauce.  If the sauce is just right, again, drain the pasta until all the water is nearly out.  It is all a matter of personal preference, some might think that lightly draining the pasta washes down the taste of your sauce, while others may find it compliments and makes a thicker, denser sauce taste better. Experiment and set your own opinion on this matter.

The main difference between mass-produced pasta and imported pasta from Italy is, factory pasta is made, and dried at about 1000C for 8-12 hours.  Good pasta, is dried at 450C for 50 hours.  This allows the pasta to dry from the inside out.  What you may find with your mass-produced pastas, is that even though you cook it according to the package directions, it will often be too soft on the outside but yet still slightly uncooked on the inside.

Shapes & Sizes of Pasta
Italy has over 350 different types of pasta shapes and sizes.  You most commonly will see your supermarket or even gourmet emporium with no more than a dozen or two of the most popular shapes and/or sizes.   Which pasta when?  Well, its a matter of taste, I personally don't care for fettucine so I often (again this is a personal choice) substitute the thinner linguine for fettucine which are wider.  If there is any one rule of thumb:  the less complex the shape, the less complex the sauce, the bigger the shape, the chunkier the sauce; the thicker the sauce, the thicker the pasta (using fettucine, penne for your cream sauces). Outside of that I don't know how to help you.

"Numbered" Pasta Often you will see pasta with numbers on the package like Thin Spaghetti #9. Why? What does it mean?  Well, in the "old days" there were waves of immigrants that came in to work in the factories. There were the Irish, the Asians, the Germans, the Italians and numerous other ethinc groups.  Other than the Italians, none of these other groups really spoke the language, and were much less able to pronnounce or decern or know the difference between "spaghetti or spaghettini".  So, before the days of automated computers, the factory managers had to get everyone straight, so it was much easier to say "today, we are making #9".

KEY
Factory: Mass produced and made from newer, modern machines NOT from the original bronze molds.
Bronze Molds: Before the days of teflon, the pasta more was made from bronze molds.  Bronze is the best texture because of the surface and the texture it leaves on the pasta, which is more rugged and holds sauce much better.
Sicilian: Shapes and/or sizes originally found or created from Sicily.  Yes, spaghetti is Sicilian.  Arabs ruled Sicily in the Middle Ages.  It is said that 'maccheroni is derived from the Sicilian word 'maccarruni', which means "dough made by force" or "molded".  If you ever find yourself in Turkey and are hungry for pasta and don't speak the language, simply ask where you can find "makeroni".

Basic Pasta Shapes & Sizes
Angel Hair - Very thin/fine spaghetti which literally cooks in a minute or two, good for seafood
Cannelloni - big, round tubes, can be thought of as "jumbo" ziti and better for stuffing with ricotta chesse
Cappellini - Thicker than angel hair, thinner than Spaghetti or Spaghetini, some argue it is the same as angel hair.
Capo da Chef - Thick, wide-ridged rigatoni-like shaped pasta with one end curled to look like a chef's hat
Creste Di Galli - Half moon shaped pasta with 2 rows of holes, it is named for the zodiac and/or constellation Gemini, (the Twins) and can also look like 2-thick walled pastas twisted together.
Ditalini - short tubes about the size of the eraser on the end of a pencil, most commonly seen in soups like pasta fragioli
Farfalle - look and are commonly referred to as bowties
Farfallone - Butterfly-shaped pasta
Fettucine - Long, thin, flat pasta
Fuisilli - Looks like spaghetti with a "perm", as it is curly/kinky as if you had wrapped it around a pencil. Sometimes mistaken for Rotini pasta, but rotini has a longer, corkscrew type shape.
Gnocchi - pasta made with potatoes
Lasagna - Long, flat, wide pasta (if it is filled with meat sauce, as opposed to just ricotta, it is known as Sicilian style)
Linguine - Long, very think flat pasta that looks more like spaghetti than fettucine.
Linguine Fini - Thinner than regular linguine 
Manicotti - about the thickness of a crepe, but almost like a pancake
Orzo - easily can be mistaken for rice, they work best in soups
Penne - literally means "pen" in Italian because of the angled tip, it resembles a fountain pen. 
Penne Rigate - pen shaped pasta as described above, only has ridges
Quadrefiore - "square flower" shape
Radiatore - "little radiators" shaped like what you have in the front of your car, square with coils
Ravioli - ravioli always contains some sort of "filling", it is two pieces of flat dough, a few inches (square or round, sometimes even in the shape of a fish or heart) and while most commonly filled with ground meat or ricotta, it can also be filled with everything from exotic mushrooms to walnuts, artichokes and other vegetables, as well as seafood.
Rosette - rose-shaped pasta on one side, and wagon wheel on the other
Rotini is often mistaken with fuisilli pasta, but rotini has a longer, corkscrew type shape.
Shells - Look like shells, coming in most commonly small, medium and large. Only medium or large should be considered for being stuffed, perhaps with ricotta cheese
Spaghetti - Long, thin, round pasta, and without a doubt the most popular size/type in the United States.
Spaghettini - Thin spaghetti, similar to vermicelli
Tortellini - Literally means the navel or bellybutton of Venus.
Tubetti - Similar to Ziti, only "cut up" into smaller pieces which then resemble ditalini
Vermicelli - Thin spaghetti, similar to spaghetini
Ziti - plain tubes, no ridges, most commonly baked in meat sauce with mozzarella covering it.

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