Pasta Anyone?

By Candy Sagon

When you need a quick meal guaranteed to please your family, think Italian.

With the weather growing warmer, it’s time to lighten up—from the clothes you wear to the dinners you cook. And what better way than taking pasta, beloved dinner staple of busy cooks everywhere, and giving it a spring makeover?

Instead of the hearty meat sauces we crave during cold weather, switch to lighter foods such as fish, shrimp, and low-fat vegetable-cheese combos for your pasta meals. They’re the perfect solution whether you need a quick, healthful supper before a troop meeting, recipes to help your Eagle Scout earn his Cooking merit badge, or just a one-dish meal sure to please all ages at the family dinner table.

Although Americans don’t eat quite as much pasta as Italians do, it’s still one of the most popular foods in U.S. households. A recent survey by the National Pasta Association revealed that 77 percent of Americans eat pasta at least once a week.

With its widespread popularity, it’s surprising that so many Americans don’t cook pasta properly. A 2005 survey by Italian pasta maker Barilla found that more than half of Americans make some common mistakes when cooking pasta.

To get perfect pasta every time:

1) Use a large enough pan. This is the most common mistake people make. Pasta needs space to move around in the boiling water, or it can stick and become starchy. Use at least 4 quarts of water to cook a pound of pasta.

2) Add enough salt to the water. Salt helps dried pasta cook evenly. Italian chefs say pasta water should taste like ocean water, so add a couple of teaspoons. And don’t worry—pasta does not absorb the salt like potatoes or vegetables do.

3) Don’t add oil to the water. It just makes the pasta slick and unable to soak up the delicious sauce you just made.

4) Stir pasta after adding to boiling water. Stirring pasta while it cooks helps it cook evenly and keep from sticking.

Bow-tie Pasta with Salmon, Parsley, and Olive-Mustard Butter

Cutting the salmon into pieces helps it cook faster for this simple, but elegant, weeknight dinner. Be sure to use pitted olives. Serve with a crisp, green salad. (Adapted from Salmon by Diane Morgan, Chronicle Books, 2005).

1  pound farfalle (bow-tie) pasta
3  tablespoons unsalted butter
3  shallots, thinly sliced
2⁄3  cup pitted and halved kalamata olives
3  tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
2  teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
1  pound salmon fillet, skin and pin bones removed, cut into bite-size pieces
2⁄3  cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Boil a large pot of salted water over high heat. Add the pasta and boil until cooked but still slightly chewy, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until soft but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add the olives, capers, and mustard and stir to combine. Add the salmon and cook, stirring, until it is just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add the parsley and the salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Drain the pasta. Add it to the sauce and toss to coat. Divide the pasta among warmed plates, spooning any remaining salmon, olives, and capers on top. Serve immediately.

Serves: 4-6.

Three-Cheese Spinach Orzo Bake

Maryland mother Aviva Goldfarb, author of The Six O’Clock Scramble cookbook and e-mail newsletter, says this kid-friendly, healthy meal is a cross between spinach lasagna and a pizza, but with orzo (a rice-shaped pasta) rather than wide noodles or crust. Serve with fresh fruit for dessert.

¾ to 1 cup orzo
1  cup prepared tomato-based pasta sauce
½  cup grated Parmesan cheese
10  ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed, excess water squeezed out
2  large eggs, lightly beaten
½  cup low-fat ricotta cheese
¼  teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½  cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-inch glass pie plate with nonstick spray oil.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the orzo and cook according to package directions.

Drain and transfer to a medium bowl. Add ½ cup of the pasta sauce and the Parmesan cheese. Spread the mixture in the prepared pie plate.

In a medium bowl, add spinach, eggs, ricotta cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste, and stir to combine. Spoon the mixture evenly to cover all of the pasta. Top with the remaining 1⁄2 cup of the pasta sauce and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the cheese is slightly melted. Serve hot.

Serves: 6-8. 

Shrimp, Green Bean, and Feta Pasta Salad

This pasta salad is hearty and popular enough to be a main dish on a busy night. Even better, says Virginia food writer Stephanie Witt Sedgwick who developed the recipe, it's quick and easy.

4  ounces green beans, trimmed, each bean cut into 1- to 1 ½-inch-long pieces
8  ounces dried rotini or similar pasta
1  pound medium cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
2  to 4 tablespoons chopped dill
2  tablespoons red wine vinegar
1  tablespoon lemon juice
2  tablespoons olive oil
4  ounces crumbled feta cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Have ready a large bowl of ice water.

In a pot of boiling salted water, cook green beans until they turn bright green and start to soften. Transfer the beans immediately to the ice water to cool. When the beans have cooled, drain them and pat them dry with a clean towel.

Meanwhile, prepare the pasta. In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander, rinse with cold water until the pasta is completely cool and drain again until it is free of excess water. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the cooked green beans, pasta, shrimp, dill to taste, vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, feta cheese, salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Serves: 4-6 as a main course.

Candy Sagon is a former food writer at The Washington Post.

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