Poor pasta. I get so frustrated for it. So misunderstood and maligned. Carbs are on the naughty step generally, and mostly because of misinformation. I want to try and set that right.
I love pasta, fresh and dried. I make my own at home (egg based & water based) and I also use a lot of dried pasta. They are completely different animals though, and one is not better than the other.
Before I start, my background is in Physiology, including nutrition (BSc!), so I do know what I am talking about. Plus: I have visited Italy many times, including exploring pasta regions and seeing how they are made, both fresh and dried, on the streets, in home kitchens, in pasta shops and in factories. I have been to pasta schools, and been taught to make different types of pasta by nonnas, mommas and wonderful ladies making pasta on the street just outside their houses.
Blasting Pasta Myths
Carbohydrates are not unhealthy — first things first, carbohydrates are not unhealthy. They are key in a balanced diet, and important for energy. Carbohydrate is the best source of energy, but carbohydrate stores are limited, so it is important to have some in your diet throughout the day. Best balanced with protein and fat for health, and fat is important too.
I can’t have gluten — you have my sympathies, I struggle with lactose and have coeliac and gluten intolerant friends. I know it is unpleasant. However, if you haven’t been diagnosed and just react to poor quality pasta and bread, do try better quality, you might be able to digest it! I know it makes a difference to me. Especially for bread, but for pasta too.
I love pasta but it is a guilty pleasure / fattening / makes me sleepy — good quality pasta flour is high in protein, and when cooked al dente low GI. No one really talks about GI anymore (Glycaemic Index, which measures the increase in blood glucose two hours after eating), but what it means is that pasta, properly cooked, is broken down and absorbed more slowly into the blood stream resulting in a steady rise in blood sugar and insulin levels and not a spike.
I can’t digest it, I get bloated –There is such a difference between mass produced and artisanal (for want of a better word), in terms of flavour, texture and how you digest it. Good quality dried pasta is dried slowly at a lower temperature allowing a fermentation process which results in better flavour and easier digestion.
Lets talk about fat — We need fat for building cells, for our brains (the myelin sheath surrounding every nerve fibre is a fatty layer), for vitamin digestion (Vitamins A,D,E & K are fat soluble and fat is needed to help the intestine absorb them), for making hormones. People used to be horrified at how many avocados I ate (so fatty! aren’t you worried about that?!). Now, it is recognised that these are good fats and instagram is filled with them. As with everything, steer clear of processed foods (and oils) and you will be fine. (Why do I mention fat? It is important for everything that goes with your pasta, and this is how you introduce balance, with what you serve it with).
Fresh pasta is better quality than dried — quality dried pasta commands a huge respect in Italy, and deservedly so. As does quality fresh pasta, more accurately handmade pasta or made in small batches with great care and high quality ingredients. When you are going to the supermarket to buy fresh pasta, often what is marketed as fresh pasta is machine made pasta that isn’t dried. It isn’t any better, and it is usually worse than good quality dried pasta. (Obviously this excludes filled pastas which you wouldn’t dry anyway).
All dried pasta is the same — Mass produced pasta is usually produced using poorer quality flour, and quicker, which affects flavour and digestive properties (more below). They also use teflon dies instead of bronze dies as they are cheaper and last longer (a die is the apparatus that the pasta dough is pushed through, resulting in the pasta shapes, an extruder). This results in a shiny smooth pasta which won’t grip on to a sauce in the same way, or at all.
Good pasta is too expensive — Some might roll your eyes now, here she is now telling us to buy expensive pasta. But, listen, expensive pasta is not actually expensive. Consider that the cheap stuff is just not good for your health and pasta should never have been that price anyway. When you consider that a pack that costs £3 (some cost more but you will get an a very good selection of high quality pasta at £3) will serve 4 and you compare that to the price of (not even good) meat? Spend a little more, eat a lot better, and see the difference in flavour and texture. I promise it makes an enormous difference and you won’t go back. There is such a difference between mass produced and artisanal (for want of a better word), in terms of flavour, texture and how you digest it.
To make pasta at home I need all the kit — I used to teach day long pasta classes in London covering 8 pasta shapes and sauces (from different regions), and with not a pasta machine in sight. They are handy, but all you need is a bowl, a board to roll it on, a rolling pin, some pasta flour, some water, some salt and / or some eggs and some time. That is it. This is how it is done in Italy, almost always by hand. The actual pasta making process needs 5 minutes for getting organised, 5 minutes max for pulling everything together, 10 minutes to knead by hand. Then you rest it and you roll it. Just like that you can cut it or you can shape and stuff it. A project for weekends but the simple pasta shapes like malloreddus, maltagliati or tagliatelle? I do these mid week too, when I have a little time. I find it meditative and relaxing too. Honestly! Try it. You get a rhythm over time, and everything gets much easier with practice.
And on that note — I would love to make pasta at home but I don’t have the space! Neither do I, my kitchen is tiny. With 1 cook in there it is busy, with 2 it is packed. But I have no trouble! I can’t fit a proper pasta board but I make do with a small one.
All pasta tastes the same — I think we are all agreed that pasta can be death row dish delicious. And how varied? Different shapes, colours, sizes. Different textures. Different uses, soups, ragus, simple dressed with butter and chilli. Speedy, slow, however you want it. Learning which shape goes with which sauce is a game changer, and what a joyful journey.
I want a healthy diet so I don’t eat pasta — Even after all of the above? Italians have been making pasta for hundreds of years (some claim thousands) and Italians are said to eat 60 pounds of pasta per person per year. Can a whole country be wrong? And so many of the rest of us? Pasta is not a recent fad, fad diets are. Balance, variety in what we eat, care and attention to the details and ingredients, less snacks, some more home cooking and a little bit of exercise, and we will all be hunky dory!
OK, I am sold, but I can’t get good quality dried pasta where I live! — yes, you can! Some supermarkets will surprise you with what they stock. Look for bronze died to start. Check your local deli, and if that fails, there is that wonderful internet. There are many brands in Italy, in the UK look out for Rustichella d’Abruzzo (from Abruzzo and quite affordable with a variety of shapes – I visited them when in Italy and was very impressed, more on that soon*) and Pastificio dei Campo (a premium pasta from Gragnano which I love but it is a treat as it is more expensive).
Trafilata with ‘Nduja, Oregano and a Crispy Egg
Dispatches from Emilia Romagna: Pellegrino Artusi & A Recipe for Perfect Pasta Dough (Photo Illustrated)
- Rustichella d’Abruzzo invited me to Italy to experience their pasta, but I wouldn’t share it here, or use it in my kitchen if I didn’t highly rate it.