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Sauces are simple and enhance the pasta flavour and texture. Pasta cooking water is added to the sauce to help it adhere to the pasta.The Globe and Mail

Several years ago, I spent some time at the Barilla pasta factory in Parma. Although it was an interesting pasta-learning experience, I was more fascinated by the debunking of several myths.

We all learned that Marco Polo brought pasta to the West. But that’s not true. It was the Arab traders who brought noodles to both the Chinese and the Italians. They were also the first to figure out how to dry pasta, which they took with them for long trips.

In Italy, a love affair developed with pasta. However, they owe their dried pasta to the French who manufactured the first extruder machine in the late 19th century.

The importation of hard wheat durum flour from Canada and other countries changed pasta’s course yet again. Italian pasta was originally made with soft wheat, which produces softer, gummier pasta. When durum wheat was imported and used, the pasta became firmer with a slightly chewier consistency – the breakthrough texture. Al dente pasta is a fairly new taste but makes all the difference. The pasta becomes the major player, and the sauce enhances it. Al dente pasta also has a lower glycemic index than the soft-cooked variety.

Pasta rules

It must be al dente, not clumped during cooking and never rinsed because that is what holds the sauce to the pasta. The water should have a lot of salt to flavour the pasta.

Sauces are simple and enhance the pasta flavour and texture. Pasta cooking water is added to the sauce to help it adhere to the pasta.

While we add pasta to the sauce in the skillet in North America, you often find in Italy, the pasta and sauce goes into a bowl and is mixed there. The head of the household always got the mixing bowl as it was supposed to have the most flavour

Use good olive oil for sautéing and extra virgin for finishing. The better the finishing olive oil, the better the dish.

Winter cherry tomatoes are usually good but substitute them with canned cherry tomatoes if you prefer.

Ditali with Zucchini and Ricotta

Serves 2 to 3 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer

I first had this dish in Rome in a trattoria at lunch time. Although this dish calls for ditali, either penne or small rigatoni work equally well.

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 4 small zucchini or 2 large, sliced
  • 2 tablespoon sliced garlic
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
  • 8 ounces ditali
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Place a pan over medium heat. Add oil and onion sautéing until softened about 2 minutes. Toss zucchini and garlic with onion and season with salt and red pepper flakes to taste. Cover the pan.

Remove lid after about 10 minutes. Keep cooking until zucchini browns lightly and all the liquid has evaporated about another 5 to 7 minutes.

Place pasta in plenty of salted boiling water. Cook according to package directions or until al dente. Drain, reserving ½ cup pasta cooking water. Transfer pasta to a bowl and toss with zucchini and ricotta, lightly mashed with a fork.

Add enough pasta cooking water to keep mixture moist and stir in half of the Parmesan. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan just before serving.

Garganelli with Prosciutto and Peas

Serves 4 as an appetizer

This simple appetizer is traditional in Emilia Romagna where butter is often used instead of olive oil. Substitute other short pasta for garganelli.

  • 8 ounces (250 g) garganelli
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 3 ounces (90 g) prosciutto, sliced
  • 4 ounces (125 g) frozen peas
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cook pasta in salted boiling water. Drain when al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water. Return pasta to cooking pot. Stir in half the butter and half of Parmesan.

Place a skillet over medium heat, while pasta is cooking, Add remaining butter. Add chopped onion and prosciutto. Sauté gently without allowing it to colour, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium low. Stir in peas and season with salt and pepper.

Add ¼ cup reserved pasta water to cook peas. Simmer until peas are just tender, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add pasta to pan and stir together. If too dry add a bit more water. Bring to the table with remaining Parmesan served separately.

Bad-Weather Pasta

Serves 4

Called this because you don’t have to shop for the ingredients as you usually have them in the house. Perfect for this winter.

  • 1 small head broccoli or cauliflower (about 4 cups)
  • ½ cup breadcrumbs
  • 24 chopped black olives (2 oz/70 g)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves crushed garlic
  • 2 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 8 anchovies, chopped, optional but good
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • Salt to taste
  • 250 grams penne or other short pasta

Divide broccoli into small florets then cut each in half lengthwise, making one side flat. Bring a large pot of water to boil and add florets. Bring back to boil and boil 2 minutes. Drain and refresh with cold water until cold.

Place a small pan on low heat and dry-toast breadcrumbs until golden brown, about 2 min. Add olives. Reserve.

Heat oil in a skillet over low heat. Add garlic and gently fry until it just starts to colour, about one minute. Add parsley, anchovies and red pepper flakes crushing them with a wooden spoon. Fry another minute. Add white wine and simmer until it has evaporated, about 3 min. Toss in broccoli and stir well to coat.

Cook pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water. Drain when al dente and toss pasta with prepared sauce adding a little pasta cooking water if too dry.

Garnish with toasted breadcrumbs and chopped olives.

Zac’s Spaghetti with Olive Oil and Chilies

Serves 4 as an appetizer

Hostaria Romana is an old-fashioned Roman trattoria. The waiters are old pros doling out lavish bowls of antipasti with irreverence and wit. The pastas are served in the bowl that they are mixed in (called originale) and if two of you order the same pasta, they give the woman the bowl and the man a soup plate, which goes to show that Italians really do love women. Zac is my grandson who, when he was younger, was strong in his pasta likes. This was his favourite.

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 8 ounces (250 g) spaghetti
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ cup finely chopped parsley
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add garlic and chili flakes and cook slowly for 3 to 5 minutes or until garlic is very soft. Cook pasta in a large pot of well-salted boiling water until al dente. Drain, reserving about a half cup of the cooking water.

Toss pasta with flavoured olive oil in skillet and add 2 tablespoons or more of cooking water. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with parsley and grated cheese and serve immediately.

Pasta with Clams

Serves 4

Eric Reguly, the European bureau chief for The Globe and Mail, invited us for dinner in Rome. He lived in Rome as a boy, is based there now and loves all forms of Roman cooking. Small Manila clams or New Zealand clams are less sandy than littleneck clams. The tomato confit garnish is optional.

For Tomato Confit

  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half and seeded
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Pasta

  • 1 pound (500 g) linguine
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon hot chili flakes
  • 3 pounds (1.5 kg) Manila clams
  • 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Preheat oven to 350F.

Toss cherry tomatoes with olive oil and salt and pepper and place on a baking sheet, cut side up. Bake for 25 minutes or until semi-dried. Set aside.

Cook pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain, reserving about half a cup of the cooking water.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add wine and chili flakes and bring to boil. Add clams and steam until they open, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir reserved roasted cherry tomatoes into clam sauce. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed.

Add cooked pasta to sauce and toss together, adding pasta cooking water if needed. Garnish with parsley and finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Tagliatelle with Tomato Pesto and Comte Cheese

Serves 4 as a first course

This simple pasta stars a first course. Comte cheese is from Quebec or France and has a sweet, nutty flavour, which goes well with the pasta. Use fresh mozzarella if Comte is unavailable. It is less exceptional but good.

  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • ¼ cup fresh parsley
  • ¼ cup fresh basil
  • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 8 ounces tagliatelle
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • ½ cup Comte cheese in pieces (more if you love cheese)

Heat a skillet over low heat. Add pine nuts and toast for 3 minutes or until golden. Place in bowl to cool.

Add parsley, basil, toasted pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper into a food processor and pulse until combined. Mix with cherry tomatoes and reserve.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain and toss with reserved pesto. Top with Comte cheese.

Orecchiette with Rapini, Shrimps and Cherry Tomatoes.

Serves 4

For lovers of the bitterness of rapini mixed with the sweetness of tomatoes. And shrimp. Use medium to large shrimp, so they do not overcook. Canned cherry tomatoes work well in this dish.

  • 1 bunch rapini, ends trimmed
  • 12 ounces (340 g) orecchiette
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 12 ounces (340 g) shrimp, shelled
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes
  • Extra virgin olive oil, for garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add rapini and cook for 2 minutes. Remove with tongs, drain and refresh with cold water. Cut each stalk into 3 and reserve. Add orecchiette and cook for 9 to 12 minutes or until al dente. Drain reserving ½ cup cooking water.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in skillet over medium-high heat, while pasta is cooking. Add breadcrumbs and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Stir until crisp and golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. Scrape onto a plate.

Return same pan to heat and add remaining oil. Cook cherry tomatoes for 2 to 3 minutes or until wilted. Add garlic and shrimps and toss together until the shrimps start to turn pink. Stir in capers, chili flakes and rapini.

Continue to sauté until shrimp are cooked 2 to 3 more minutes. Add pasta and enough cooking water to make everything moist. Season with salt and pepper. Toss everything together and sprinkle with a little olive oil. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over each serving.

Pasta with Spiced Cauliflower

Serves 4 as a first course, 2 as a main

My favourite quick pasta, cauliflower with anchovies, a dynamite combination. I first had this in Rome and became addicted to it. I add sautéed scallops to it when I want a richer dish.

  • 1 small head cauliflower
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 8 anchovies, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes
  • 8 ounces (250 g) orecchiette or conchiglie
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan

Break cauliflower into florets and place in food processor. Pulse until cauliflower is a little smaller than the orecchiette. Reserve.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add orecchiette and boil until al dente. Drain well, reserving half cup pasta cooking water.

While pasta is boiling, heat oil in frying pan over medium high heat. Add cauliflower, anchovies, garlic, chili flakes and sauté together until cauliflower is al dente about 2 to 3 minutes.

Toss in the orecchiette add about ¼ cup pasta cooking water and grated Parmesan. Toss everything together and serve.

Rigatoni with Many Cheeses

Serves 6

This vegetarian pasta is like a five-cheese mac and cheese. The chilies balance the richness of all this cheese. Serve a small portion as an appetizer before a lighter main course or make it dinner itself.

  • 12 ounces (375 g) rigatoni
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 8 ounces (250 g) ricotta
  • 1 4-ounce (125 g) ball buffalo mozzarella, sliced
  • 8 ounces (250 g) grated fontina
  • 4 ounces (125 g) grated ricotta salata
  • 1 cup green peas, defrosted if frozen
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add rigatoni and cook for 6 to 8 minutes or until pasta is slightly undercooked. It will continue to cook when baked. Drain and reserve, saving 1 cup cooking water separately.

Heat oil in skillet over medium high heat. Add chili flakes and cook for 30 seconds. Add wine and bring to boil. Boil until wine is reduced by half, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in mustard and reserved cooking water. Return to a boil then remove from heat.

Transfer contents of skillet to a bowl and allow to cool. Stir in cream, milk, ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, fontina, ricotta salata and green peas. Stir in pasta. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Pour pasta mixture into dish and dot with butter. Cover with foil. Bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer or until mixture is bubbling and cheese is golden on top.

Pasta with Spiced Chicken Ragout

Serves 4 to 6

This is a strongly flavoured Sicilian dish with a touch of Moroccan spice in it. The sauce is rather like a rich chicken Bolognese. Orecchiette is the best pasta, but cavatappi or larger shells would be fine too.

  • 1 pound (500 g) boned and skinned chicken thighs
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup sliced leeks
  • ½ cup finely chopped carrots
  • ½ cup finely chopped celery
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock, homemade or low sodium
  • 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
  • 1-inch piece cinnamon stick
  • 2 star anise
  • 2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • Pinch chili flakes
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • 12 ounces (375 g) orecchiette, cooked according to package directions.
  • 1-ounce shaved Parmesan cheese, optional

Heat oil in sauté pan or high sided skillet on medium-high heat. Season thighs with salt and pepper. Add thighs to pan and sauté until browned on each side, about 2 minutes per side. Remove thighs.

Add leeks, carrots and celery and sauté for 3 minutes or until softened slightly. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Pour in red wine and bring to boil. Boil until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Add stock, tomatoes, cinnamon stick, star anise, thyme, and chili flakes. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove cover and add thighs. Cover again and cook for 20 to 25 minutes or until thighs are cooked through. Remove cinnamon and star anise. Remove thighs and shred. If sauce is too thin, bring to boil and reduce until slightly thickened.

Return chicken to pan and add baby spinach. Cook for 1 minute longer or until spinach is wilted. Season sauce well with salt and pepper to taste.

While sauce is cooking, place large pot of salted water on high heat. When water comes to boil, add pasta, and cook according to package directions. Drain and toss with sauce. Top with shaved Parmesan if desired.

Easy Rustic Lasagna

Serves 6

Rich and filling, this is easy to make. Mostly just sausages and cheese, it is a great winter tummy warmer. Using whipping cream instead of whole milk makes a richer sauce, but it’s not necessary if you want to cut the calories. The quality of the sausages is very important because it is the main flavouring in the dish. If you boil fresh lasagne noodles for a minute before using, they absorb less sauce, and you get more filling. If using dried noodles boil only until very al dente as they will continue to cook as it bakes.

  • Fresh lasagne noodles (about 6 to 9 lasagne noodles)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 Italian sausages, about 1½ pounds (750 g), removed from casings
  • ¼ cup red wine
  • One 28-ounce (796 ml) can Italian plum tomatoes, pureed
  • 1 cup whipping cream or whole milk
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 cups grated fontina, provolone, or mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add lasagne noodles and cook for 1 minute or until softened but not fully cooked. Drain and toss with a little olive oil to keep them from sticking together. Reserve.

Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Crumble in sausage meat and cook, stirring for 3 minutes or until sausage loses its pinkness. Add red wine and bring to boil, then add tomatoes and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until sauce has thickened. Pour in cream, bring to boil, and boil for 4 minutes or until sauce is thickened and reduced to about 5 cups. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.

Combine grated fontina and Parmesan and set aside.

Lightly oil an 8x12-inch baking dish. Make a layer of lasagne noodles, top with one third of sauce, then one third of cheese. Repeat layering twice more finishing with sauce and cheese.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until sauce bubbles and cheese is browned on top.

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