The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

On The Table

March 6, 2013

Cheryle Finley: Perfect pasta easy with simple method

JOPLIN, Mo. — In Italy sauce is used more as a condiment to pasta, making the noodle the star of the show. Here in the United States, we tend to focus more on the sauce, sometimes covering the pasta completely.

Not at my house. Nowadays, macaroni is a necessary staple. One of my grandson Atlas' favorite meals is goulash. Macaroni, ground beef and diced tomatoes. Couldn't be easier. For his taste buds, tomato sauce would work just as well as the tomatoes because he usually picks around them. The pasta is the star of this show when goulash is on the menu.

Recently Atlas has decided to mix it up a little. I've always used elbow macaroni, but now he wants to pick a different shape during each grocery outing. Bow tie is the current pasta of choice.

Opening a can of tomatoes and browning some ground beef are pretty easy elements of cooking. But cooking the perfect pasta? There's definitely a right way to go about it. First and foremost, choose the right pasta for the dish. Don't put giant shells in a delicate soup or use tiny pasta pieces for a hearty casserole.

Get ready by filling the pot with plenty of water. Pasta sticks together if it's cooked in only a small amount of water. Your pasta will probably double in size, so measure accordingly. Add salt, but no oil. The salt will help flavor the pasta as well as raise the boiling temperature of the water. Oil will just float on top. Remember the saying "oil and water don't mix"? Well, it's true, especially on the cooktop. Any oil that does get on the pasta will keep the sauce from sticking to it.

Bring the water to a rolling boil that won't stop by giving it a stir. Putting a lid on the pot will speed this step along. Add the pasta and stir several times to be sure the pasta is separated, then stir occasionally while cooking. Lower the heat a bit, just enough to keep a boil but not enough that the water becomes foamy and boils over. We all dread the sound of hot water drowning our stove's heating element and know it can happen in the blink of an eye. Most pasta will cook in 8 to 12 minutes, depending on its shape and size, so it's not wise to cook different pastas in the same pot. The chance of them being ready at the same time is slim. It's easiest to check the box for directions. If you use the same pasta time and again, you will become an expert at timing.

Since there's only about a 1-minute difference in cooking pasta al dente and firm, you will need to check the pasta for doneness, maybe several times within a short period. Al dente is the most preferred texture; firm yet tender with no solid white in the center when cut. Instead, the center should be an  opaque cream color. If your doneness preference is soft, continue cooking until a tasted morsel has no give when tested. Be sure to slightly undercook pasta that will be used in a casserole or any dish requiring additional cooking because the pasta will finish up in the oven or skillet.

Once your pasta is the desired doneness, drain it in a colander, giving it a good shake to remove the excess liquid. Don't rinse if it is destined for a hot dish. You want to leave the starchy film on the pasta so it will grab that sauce. If making a cold pasta salad, rinsing is your choice. Hot pasta will absorb the dressing like crazy, but rinsed cool pasta won't. I've used 2 to 3 bottles of dressing on hot pasta, trying to hurry along the salad mixing process. While the pasta may not be the star of the show at your house, you want to make sure it's perfect, no matter how it's served. Thank you to for some of these tips.

Word to the wise: Be on the lookout for this year's Taste of Home cooking school tickets going on sale. Set for Saturday, April 27, the cooking school will be one day only this year, so you know it will sell out fast. It's still a little early, but we want you to have a heads-up so you don't miss out on this popular event.

Today's first two recipes are from "Fresh and Simple Pasta Pronto." Make the sausage dish less spicy by choosing a regular Italian sausage link and adding a little ham for an extra-hearty German-style soup. For dessert, from "Cooking Light '88" we get a good use for ripe bananas. These cupcakes are tasty plain, or you can dress them up with a chocolate drizzle or cream-cheese frosting on top. Have a wonderful week and happy eating!


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