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Monday, March 10 2008
Pasta and a quickly whipped sauce make a nourishing and satisfying meal. Having pasta and a few choice ingredients always at hand makes one good to go. Available fresh or dried, in all sort of shapes, sizes and colors, storing pasta and the pantry items listed below leads to a dinner ready in no time at all; adding a little culinary imagination, even a great dinner. No need to keep all the ingredients in the list, stocking only one or two of the cheeses as staple will do, for instance, buying any of the others as needed.
A well-stocked pantry means there is no end to what one can do with pasta.
CHEESES FOR PASTA
When purchasing hard cheese such as Parmesan, demand a slice cut from the whole cheese instead of picking out a ready-cut piece packed in plastic. Wrap the cheese in kitchen foil and keep in the fridge. Store fresh and soft cheeses sealed in airtight containers in the fridge.
Mozzarella - This creamy, mild cheese melts well for a pasta topping. Once opened, it will keep for 2-3 days refrigerated in brine.
Pecorino Romano - A hard cheese made from sheep's milk, this is similar to Parmesan, but has a more incisive flavor.
Ricotta - Often used as the basis for pasta fillings, ricotta is a young, soft cheese with a slightly tangy flavor.
Fontina - A semi-hard cheese with a taste reminding of smoking wood, fontina softens easily and blends into sauces.
Gorgonzola - This is the Italian version of blue cheese, with a pungent flavor.
Grana Padano - This is a semi-hard Italian cheese with a grainy texture, made from cow's milk and similar to Parmesan.
Mascarpone - A smooth, double cream, dessert cheese, use it for a pasta-based pudding.
Parmigiano Reggiano - Another semi-hard, granular cheese, with a strong taste, excellent grated on top of pasta. Incidentally, this is the cheese known as Parmesan; Parmigiano Reggiano is the rightful name.
Anchovies - For sale packed in oil, or whole, salted, in which case you should rinse, fillet and pack them in oil. Always keep in the fridge.
Capers - Use capers for sauces, pizza toppings, and to flavor stews. Capers are best added toward the end of the cooking time because heat deepens their flavor and the salty impression they make.
Ham, bacon or pancetta - Numerous pasta recipes demand an amount of ham, bacon of pancetta, often diced or cut into strips and sautéed. Parma is one of the many Italian hams. Pancetta is an Italian type of bacon cured like ham.
Olives - Olives packed in oil or vinegar can stay at room temperature. Transfer to another container and refrigerate canned olives after opening.
Pine kernels - Toast pine kernels to heighten their flavor and make them crunchier. Use them for sauces, whole or ground -as in pesto.
Blend pureed olives and olive oil to make an easy pasta sauce. Prepare a slightly more complex one by mixing anchovies, olives and capers.
Eggs - Fresh eggs make an instant sauce such as carbonara.
No need to say fresh herbs have the best flavor. If using dried herbs, those with whole leaves are better than the ones with chopped leaves. Dried herbs have a stronger flavor than fresh ones; use only half the amount.
Basil - The tingly flavor of basil is complementary for any tomato-based dishes.
Marjoram - This herb is similar to oregano -many would say superior- but with a more delicate flavor and aroma, an ideal to condiment pasta salads.
Oregano - An herb with a piquant taste well preserved when dried, oregano is often used to flavor pasta and pizza dishes.
Parsley - Parsley imparts a distinctive flavor and aroma and it is a ready available garnish.
Sage - Pasta sauces improve with the delicate flavor of recently chopped sage.
Thyme - Remove sprigs before serving. Fresh or dried leaves make a pungent seasoning.
Olive oil - Consider olive oil the first option for pasta dishes, as a condiment on its own or as an ingredient in marinades or sauces. Choose extra-virgin olive oil, the unrefined oil produced from the first cold pressing of the olives.
Nutmeg - A little grated nutmeg contributes to give a distinctive flavor to milk based sauces.
Pepper, black or white - Black pepper is more pungent than white.
Saffron - Available in strands or ground, saffron provides color and flavor. Best used in risottos and with meat or fish dishes.
Garlic - Red skinned for more flavor. Fry garlic gently as it scorches easily and acquires an acrid taste.
Onions - Choose common yellow onions for a stronger taste.
Spinach - Mix with ricotta cheese for a creamy pasta filling. Cook, drain and squeeze thoroughly to remove all excess moisture.
Tomatoes - Fresh or preserved in one of the many ways, are a vital ingredient in many pasta dishes. Needless to mention outdoor grown, sun-ripened tomatoes have the best taste, but we do it anyway.
* Common tomatoes - Whole or diced for pasta salads or as garnish. Peel, seed and chop for soups and sauces.
* Plum tomatoes - They have fewer seeds, plenty of juice and excellent flavor, ideal for sauces.
* Cherry tomatoes - These ones are little but pack a punch of flavor. Serve whole or halved as garnish and in pasta salads.
* Sun-dried tomatoes - Available whole or packed in oil, only a tiny amount needed as they have plenty of taste, use dried or re-hydrated.
* Tomato puree - Find it in a tube -close again after using a small amount- or canned, in which case go for double concentrate puree for best flavor.
* Chopped canned tomatoes - Press through a sieve and you have an instant passata sauce.
* Tomatoes canned whole - Usually plum tomatoes, use for sauces.
Balsamic vinegar - Delicious, however, true balsamic vinegar is aged for several years and it is very expensive. There are cheaper, younger versions. Use for pasta salads and to add zing to sauces.
FOR HOMEMADE PASTA
Flour - Use strong white flour or unbleached plain flour. Same amounts of white and wholegrain flour would add fiber and produce healthier dough.
Eggs - Use the freshest eggs possible for homemade pasta. Store eggs in the fridge but bring back to room temperature prior to making the dough.
Beet - To color alimentary pasta dough pink or dark wine-color, add pureed cooked beet.
Red peppers - Roasted red peppers, skinned and pureed, will give flavor and red color to pasta dough.
Spinach - Use it to color and flavor homemade pasta dough green. Fresh leaves or frozen chopped ones, both are good.
Anne Ehmer is passionate about food. Non-stop traveling between Europe and United States has somehow afforded Anne time to develop her unique skills in cooking. Her stimulating ideas and recipes are registered at all-foods-natural.com and world-food-and-wine.com