12 Types + 6 Sauces + 10 Cheeses =

Pasta Tonight

Cookbook author Domenica Marchetti walks us through her recipe for Pork Ragu for a Crowd. Read the full recipe here.
By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 18, 2009; Page F01

At my house, we never have just a dish of pasta. It is always a nice dish of pasta, as in, "Tonight I'm going to make a nice dish of pasta with red clam sauce." I picked up that turn of phrase from my Italian mother, who obviously translated it from the Italian: "un bel piatto di pasta."

The fact is, pasta is nice in more ways than I can count. Right now, pasta's nicest feature undoubtedly is its economical value. When was the last time you paid a couple of dollars, give or take a few cents, for a pound of any other food? Even the most expensive artisan brands usually cost less than $8 a pound, and although those are not what I turn to for a weeknight family dinner, they are an excellent option for entertaining within a budget.

Pasta is a busy cook's best friend in the kitchen. It can be prepared in less than half an hour, and in the time it takes to boil the water and cook the noodles, you can easily whip up a sauce, whether it's a quick tomato sauce, sauteed shrimp with garlic, or simply butter and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. At the same time, pasta is also a creative cook's dream. It can be prepared in a thousand ways, and, depending on how you choose to sauce it, will easily and happily accommodate almost everyone's tastes, from the most adherent vegan to the most unapologetic carnivore (not to mention picky children).

If you use the seasons as a guide, you are always within reach of an inspired sauce, especially if you think broadly. A sauce may or may not be saucy at all. It can be long-simmered and tomato-based or it can be a saute of seasonal vegetables tossed with cooked pasta, grated cheese and splash of the starchy cooking water to keep the noodles from sticking.

Right now, while the weather is still (relatively) chilly, I like to dress pasta with sauces made from garlicky sauteed greens, such as kale and rapini; hearty meat sauces made from braised pork or beef; and rich, cheesy sauces of Gorgonzola and mascarpone. But in a few weeks, I know that asparagus will be starring in my pasta dishes.

The sauce is important, but in some ways it is just the finishing touch. For me, much of the appeal of pasta is in its shapes, its textures and in the way it pairs with particular sauces. It seems that whenever I go to the grocery store I encounter a new pasta shape. I view that as an open invitation to play around in the kitchen. Recently, I came across calamarata: big, squat tubes so named because they resemble the rings of calamari. I served them with a sauce made from -- what else? -- calamari and onions braised in tomatoes and wine.

Pasta purists like to follow guidelines when matching shapes with sauces. I used to be quite rigid about that and once, years ago, nearly fainted dead away when my husband (early on in our marriage) suggested mixing two leftover half-boxes, one of spaghetti and one of spaghettini. (Hello? Different cooking times!) I have since relaxed on that front, in part because so many fun new shapes are available and they seem to invite experimentation, though I still would never mix spaghetti and spaghettini.

In general, however, the guidelines for matching pasta shapes with sauces are simple, and they make sense:

· Tiny pasta shapes, such as little stars or acini di pepe (little peppercorns), are to be eaten with a spoon and therefore are best in soup.

· Medium-size pasta, such as medium shells or ditalini, work well in hearty soups such as pasta-and-bean soup.

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