There seems to be a sizable number of people who abstain from pasta for health reasons. For an Italian, this is obviously a hardly practicable way of conduct.
In addition, I am firmly convinced that extreme diets, based on the religious abstinence from the delights of good cooking are on the long-term detrimental to the soul and therefore to the body. There is so much good pasta out there, made with a variety of wheats or even gluten-free. And there are many ways to make a versatile food like pasta healthier, for example by using lots of fresh vegetables and restrained amounts of fats and cheese.
The formula to create something delicious out of humble ingredients is simple: a few balanced components, everything fresh and of excellent quality. Here is how to go about it:
1.Vegetables: choose one! rather than cooking every time with “any” ingredient you have on hand, buy what’s fresh, local or seasonal and let it shine with minimal manipulation. In Italy, we prefer pasta with zucchini, or with asparagus or with fava to the generalist “primavera” or a mixture of anything that is getting old in the bottom drawer of the fridge.
2. Avoid weird ingredients: well may be they are not weird or unusual for you, depending on where you live and your cultural background. However, if you want to make pasta like we do in a typical Italian family, please note that traditionally we use no ginger, no corn, no ketchup, no curry and hardly any chicken in our pasta sauces. Nothing wrong if you like it, but it’s not Italian.
3. How to cook it: grill, saute, steam, roast, all methods are acceptable. Just cook your vegetable of choice in a way that will extract maximum flavor from it in the shortest possible time.
4. Sauce: provided that you have cooked you vegetables in the best possible way, you can combine them with one of the following:
a) olive oil and garlic
b) a simple tomato sauce
c) ricotta instead of cream or butter
d) a pesto based on pine-nuts, almonds or walnuts, no peanut butter please.
5. Herbs: pairing is key. Rather than adding herbs out of habit or for decoration, try to think about how they will complement with the main ingredient. In fact, not all vegetables need herbs to enhance their flavor. Asparagus and spinach are brilliant on their own. Thyme, rosemary and yes, oregano, are too overpowering for most pasta sauces. Parsley pairs with mushrooms and zucchini, basil is beautiful with eggplant. Sprinkle a pinch of fresh, chopped herbs on the plate immediately before serving for best aromatic effect.
6. Which type of pasta? Make your own or buy good quality – best if bronze drawn – dry pasta. Fresh pasta is lovely with creamy sauces and intense vegetables like mushrooms or artichokes. Spaghetti are excellent with tomato based sauces or pesto, short pasta and broccoli are a marriage made in heaven.
7. No other flavoring? yes of course, you can have some chili or black pepper if you like, saffron, a handful of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, dry porcini, a pinch of fennel seeds and of course, a sprinkle of grated Parmigiano or Pecorino. Do respect the balance however. One vegetable, one basic sauce, and a little of one or two additional herbs or flavorings is plenty to achieve a wholesome meal. Drizzle with your best extra virgin olive oil and enjoy!
Paglia e fieno pappardelle with velvet Pioppini mushrooms
This is a classic pasta with mushrooms which I have upgraded by making fresh pappardelle (wide fettuccine) and using the intensely flavorful velvet Pioppini mushrooms. Paglia e Fieno means “Straw and Hay” and refers to the use of golden and green pasta. If you are short of time buy fresh fettuccine and any robust mushroom of your liking. Regular button mushrooms are just too plain for this recipe.
- 200 g (6 oz) fresh spinach fettuccine and 200 g (6 oz) fresh plain fettuccine
- or 400 g (12 oz) fresh plain fettuccine and 3 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 450 g (1 lb) velvet pioppini mushrooms
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 cloves garlic, very finely minced.
- 1 small fresh chili pepper, diced (optional)
- 1 tablespoon grated Pecorino cheese (optional)
Bring to the boil a large pan full of salted water. If using plain fettuccine instead of plain and green, chop 3 tablespoon fresh flat leaved parsley.
For the sauce, use a pan which must be large enough to hold all the pasta and the sauce together. Saute mushrooms over high heat in one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil until they start to color, about 3 minutes. Add white wine, let them sizzle briefly, then continue cooking on low heat until the mushrooms are tender when pierced with a fork. Pioppini mushrooms must be cooked throughly or they will be indigestible. Add the garlic, saute for one more minute or until fragrant and turn off the heat.
From this point on, the pasta comes together very quickly and has to be eaten immediately so be sure to have everything ready.
Cook the pasta in salted boiling water. Fresh fettuccine should cook no more than 1 min, 2 min if frozen or dry.
When the pasta is cooked, turn the heat under the saucepan to high. Drain the pasta and transfer into the saucepan. Add chili pepper if if using.
Stir the pasta quickly into the sauce as explained here. Add some pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Sprinkle with parsley if using. Serve immediately on warm plates with a drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil and grated cheese.