Grocery store shelves are bursting with pasta; here’s how to use them best

JeanMarie Brownso
Chicago Tribune

Ironically, in this era when every other person seems to be avoiding carbs or gluten, the pasta aisle at the grocery store offers more excitement than ever. Imported dried pastas, in a vast variety of shapes, sizes and flavors and brands, line huge sections of the shelves. Pasta shapes, heretofore relegated to fancy Italian restaurants, such as orecchiette, tagliatelle and pappardelle, prove relatively easy to find. Refrigerated cases boast stuffed pastas and tender sheets for lasagna. Then, there’s the every-growing selection of whole grain pastas, gluten-free pastas and vegetables sliced to resemble pasta noodles.

Roasted green chiles spice up this orecchiette with sausage and leeks. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

It can’t be true that the average household has given up pasta in favor of low-carb options. Pasta is simply a great ingredient worthy of our time in the kitchen and a place on the dinner table. There are a number of studies that say everything in moderation is the way to live long and prosper.

So, we happily employ pasta to solve our time-pressed weeknight dinner dilemmas. Spaghetti with buttered breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley and hot pepper flakes never fails to comfort the cook and the table companions. Linguine with clam sauce (made with good-quality tinned clams and dry white wine) tops our hit list for dinner in less than 30 minutes. Same for penne with bottled tomato sauce and Parmesan. Leftovers make great lunch.

Most experts consider dried pasta equal to, or superior to, fresh pasta in terms of flavor and texture. What a relief! That means I can stock several shapes in the pantry and have dinner options at the ready.

To enjoy our pasta sans guilt means thinking seriously about portion control. Restaurants serve far more than the recommended serving size. At home, it’s much easier to avoid the temptation to overeat. I figure that 1 pound of dried pasta serves 8 — especially when accompanied by vegetables or a salad. Unless I’m planning on leftovers, I usually cook only a portion of a packaged of dried pasta. I store the remaining pasta in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.

For main-dish pasta dinners that serve 4 nicely, I like a ratio of 1 1/2 to 2 cups sauce for every 8 ounces of pasta. When the sauce contains chunks of vegetables and bits of protein, then 3 cups seems right. For lower-calorie family meals, I opt for a tomato-based topping. Rich and creamy additions suit entertaining or special occasion entrees.

At this point in our food-centric country, everyone should know not to overcook pasta to soft mush. The correct way to cook pasta is al dente — toothsome in the center when you bite it — but not at all crunchy or raw. The only way to be sure that the pasta is cooked enough is to keep tasting as it cooks. It’s better to err on the side of undercooked rather than over — the pasta will soften a bit from residual heat and from the hot sauce.

Pappardelle, studded with duck, golden turnips and prunes, offers a strong autumn twist on pasta. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Cooked properly, there are two professional tricks to up your pasta game immensely: First, always reserve some of the pasta cooking water before you drain the pasta; this starch-laden water not only can be used to thin the sauce, but it actually helps the sauce adhere to the noodles. Second, always add the hot pasta to the heated sauce and simmer them together briefly to help the sauce cling. This is the point at which you can add dribbles of the pasta-cooking water to achieve a proper sauce consistency.

The recipes that follow are designed to be flexible — for the shopper, the cook and the eater. Change up the pasta shape as desired, and change up the protein to suit your tastes and dollars. Buy the best pasta you can afford. To me, that includes imported pasta made from durum wheat semolina.

The orecchiette (little ear-shaped pasta) recipe is delicious made with other shapes, such as rigatoni, penne and trottole — a sort of curlicue shape imported from Italy. I like the Pomi brand of marinara sauce imported from Italy for its bright tomato flavor (no citric acid) and mild spicing.

When company’s coming, I treat everyone to the pappardelle pasta recipe that follows — long, wide elegant noodles with shreds of duck tucked between them, along with golden nuggets of sweet prunes and sharp turnip. A bit of cream ties it all together.

For convenience, I like the frozen duck leg confit from Maple Leaf Farms. The package contains 2 legs of duck cooked slowly in its own fat. Super moist and tender, a little goes a long way. Smoked chicken is delicious here instead; same for cooked pork carnitas or roast turkey. Sliced, smoky steak bits would be delicious, as well.



Prep: 25 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 8 servings

Canned roasted green chilies save time but tend to be softer and blander than fresh, roasted peppers. Choose the marinara sauce option for a lighter entree; use the cream for a completely different dish with more indulgence. I like the orecchiette No. 91 from the De Cecco brand.

3 green chilies (about 12 ounces), such as a combination of Anaheim chilies and poblano

1 pound uncooked sweet or spicy Italian sausage, removed from casing

1 large leek (about 11 ounces), ends trimmed, quartered lengthwise, well-rinsed

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed

1 cup chicken broth

3 cups tomato marinara sauce or 1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper or crushed red peppers to taste

1 pound orecchiette pasta

4 loosely packed cups (about 1/2 of a 5-ounce bag) baby kale or spinach

Freshly shredded pecorino Romano cheese

1 Roast the peppers over an open flame (or on a baking sheet set 6 inches from the heat of a broiler), turning often, until skin is blistered and blackened on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Cool under a towel, then rub off the blackened skins. Remove the core and stem. Rinse the peppers under cool running water and pat dry. Cut into 1/2 inch wide strips, then cut the strips into 1-inch lengths.

2 Put sausage into a large, deep nonstick skillet. Cook, breaking sausage up into little pieces, until golden and cooked through, about 8 minutes. Tip off excess fat if you wish.

3 Meanwhile, thinly slice the leek (the white and most of the dark green top). Stir the leek and olive oil into the sausage and cook until leek is wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in garlic, and cook 1 minute. Stir in chicken broth and tomato sauce (or cream), and heat to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

4 Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot full of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook al dente (a little toothsome to the bite), about 12 to 15 minutes. Scoop out, and reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the pasta.

5 Stir the pasta into the sausage mixture and put over high heat for 1 or 2 minutes. Loosen the texture by dribbling in a little of the reserved pasta water. Add the kale and chilies; toss to mix and heat through, about 1 minute. Serve right away. Pass the cheese.

Nutrition information per serving: 410 calories, 14 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 18 mg cholesterol, 56 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 16 g protein, 738 mg sodium, 5 g fiber


Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

Par-cooking the turnips in the microwave helps cut the cooking time and their sharp taste. Parsnips, rutabaga, small new potatoes or daikon radish can stand in for the turnips; each will subtly transform the dish in its own way.

2 medium turnips (about 9 ounces total), peeled, cut into 1/2 inch dice, about 1 1/2 cups

1/2 cup diced pitted prunes or raisins or currants

1 package (16 ounces) duck leg confit or 2 cups shredded smoked chicken, roast pork or grilled steak

3 tablespoons bacon drippings or olive oil

1/2 large red onion, finely sliced

3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream, to taste

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups cup torn radicchio or very thinly sliced red cabbage

1/2 package (16 to 17 ounces) pappardelle pasta, or long egg noodles about 1/2-inch wide

Large shreds of pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese

Chopped toasted walnuts, optional

Chopped fresh parsley and chives

1. Put turnip dice into a medium-size microwave-safe bowl. Add 1/2 cup water and cover tightly. Microwave on high (100 percent power) until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain.

2. Put prunes or the alternative into a small dish; add very hot water to barely cover. Let stand.

3. Scrape the duck fat and juices off the duck legs into a bowl. Remove the duck skin and reserve it for another use. Pull the meat from the bones into large shreds. You’ll have about 2 cups shredded meat.

4. Heat 3 tablespoons of bacon drippings or oil in a large, deep nonstick skillet. Add onion, and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in drained turnips, and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in garlic, and cook 1 minute. Stir in broth, any duck juices, prunes and their soaking liquid and thyme. Boil hard 2 minutes. Stir in cream, salt and pepper. Remove from heat, and stir in the radicchio.

5. Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot full of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook al dente (a little toothsome to the bite), about 6 or 7 minutes. Scoop out and reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the pasta, and add it to the skillet along with the duck shreds. Set the pan over medium heat. Toss to coat pasta with the sauce, adding dribbles of the reserved cooking liquid to moisten the whole thing.

6. Serve topped with shreds of cheese, chopped walnuts and fresh herbs.

Nutrition information per serving: 575 calories, 17 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 137 mg cholesterol, 68 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 34 g protein, 238 mg sodium, 5 g fiber