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The Monte Bene Blog

Why "Al Dente?" : 6 Tips for Making Amazing (and Perfect) Pasta

Why

If you take a look at most of our recipes, you’ll see that we say to cook your pasta “al dente.” It sounds like just a fancy term for making sure your noodles are done. “Al dente” literally means “to the tooth” in Italian. That means that well-cooked pasta must have a soft bite, a “snap” that you can feel when you chew. Why?

Go back about six hundred years and you won’t find these instructions in Italian cookbooks. In their history book, "Italian Cuisine,” authors Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari explain that in the 1500s, the proper cooking time for macaroni was about 2 hours. Apparently Italians of the renaissance preferred their pasta to be mush. It’s not clear when exactly firmer pasta became the thing, but we’re glad it did. The taste of the pasta comes out so much better in al dente pasta, which we think offers the reason for the change in cooking time.

But lucky for all of us, there’s actually more to the cooking technique than the texture and the flavor. Eating your noodles al dente is actually healthier for you.

Hot water breaks down the molecule bonds in starches – that’s how it turns dry pasta into cooked pasta. The longer the noodles are cooked, the more the molecules are broken down, and the faster your body can convert those carbs into fuel. That fast breakdown causes blood sugar levels to rise suddenly and then crash only a few hours later, leaving you tired and hungry again. When pasta is cooked al dente, it takes longer for your body to break down those carbs, which keeps your blood sugar levels more stable and your body more sufficiently fueled and filled. The result? You’re less likely to overeat or to eat unhealthy snacks after your meal. Keeping those blood sugar levels stable can prevent weight gain and type two diabetes.

So here are 6 tips for cooking your pasta to (al dente) perfection:

  1. Use the right pot: The bigger the better, but make sure it’s light enough so you can easily lift it to drain your pasta. Marcella Hazan (famous chef) suggests using enameled aluminum that heats quickly and is easy to handle.
  2. Use enough water: You should never use less than 3 quarts of water for your pasta, regardless of how much you’re making. Good Italian cooking says you should use 4 to 6 quarts of water per pound of pasta.
  3. Use just enough salt: Add salt once the water begins to boil but before you add the pasta. Let the water come to a boil again before adding your noodles. Use about 1 ½ tbsp. salt per 4 quarts of water.
  4. Test your pasta: Follow the directions on your dried pasta package for al dente pasta, but never trust that the suggested time is completely accurate. There’s nothing wrong with tasting a noodle or two intermittently to check the texture and to keep from overcooking the pasta. 
  5. Drain right on time: Once your pasta reaches that perfect al dente texture, drain it immediately. Even a minute too long can throw off the consistency of your pasta.
  6. Toss with sauce: You’ll notice that most of our recipes say to toss your cooked pasta in a cup of sauce. There are two reasons for this. For one, it prevents the noodles from sticking together. Just as importantly, it coats each noodle with sauce so that you get the perfect combination of noodle and sauce in each and every bite. Pasta, after all, was made for sauce. 

 

Sources:

Hazan, Marcella. Essential of Classic Italian Cooking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997: 126-128.

Capatti, Alberto & Massimo Monanaar. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003: 54.

"10 Ways to Slim Down Your Pasta Dinner." Eatthis.com. 

"Can Noodles Ever be Healthy?" Yahoo.com/health. 

"Taste and Health: Two Big Reasons to Cook All Your Pata Al Dente." Brightonyourhealth.com 

"How Much Water Does Pasta Really Need?" nytimes.com 

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Happy National Pasta Month!

Happy National Pasta Month!

To celebrate October--which is so much more than just a great time for costumes, candy, and colorful autumn foliage--we are going to be raining down fun facts and tasty recipes all to do with some of our favorite things: pasta and Italy. 

We're going to start off this month with some Italian tastes and tales that can help you and your family get as excited about this month as we are! 

And now for a little Italian charm...

One Italian folktale narrates the story of a barren queen who envies a blossoming rosemary bush. Shortly after seeing the plant, the queen is blessed with a baby—a little rosemary bush of her own! Not until her nephew, the King of Spain, steals the bush and places it in his garden does a beautiful girl appear from the leaves. He visits her daily, playing her songs on his flute, but one day, war breaks out, and he must go to protect his country. When the king leaves, his jealous sisters find the rosemary girl in the garden and decide to hurt her so that their brother won't keep visiting her. The gardener, who failed to protect the rosemary girl, flees in fear of the king's coming wrath. But while escaping, he overhears two dragons discussing the only means of salvation for the rosemary girl: If she is to live, someone must defeat the dragons and take ingredients from them for a special medicine! Having found a way to save his own neck, as well as that of the rosemary girl, the gardener (the unexpected hero of the tale) triumphs over the dragons and cooks up the medicine, enabling the smitten King to marry his beloved rosemary girl.

In honor of the rosemary girl, try this pasta dish! (We promise, no dragons were harmed in the making of this recipe). 

Rosemary and Pancetta Pasta

Ingredients:

Serves 5-6

  • 1 1/2-2 jars Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce 
  • 1 lb. pasta (elbow or fusilli pasta recommended)
  • 2/3 cup chopped carrot
  • 2/3 cup chopped white onion
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced pancetta
  • 2 tsp dried rosemary leaves, finely chopped
  • 3 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Preparation:

Cook 1 lb pasta al dente, drain, and set aside. Simmer (medium heat) carrots and onion in 2 tsp olive oil until tender. In another skillet, add remaining tsp olive oil and turn heat to medium high. When your oil is hot, add the rosemary and and pancetta. Cook about one minute, stirring constantly. Add Monte Bene Tomato Basil pasta sauce to onion and carrot mixture, then add rosemary and pancetta. Simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add salt to taste.  Mix 1/2 cup of sauce mixture into pasta to coat it and prevent it from sticking. Plate pasta and add remaining sauce. Top with Pecorino Romano cheese and serve. 

 

Sources:

Calvino, Italo, comp. Italian Folktales. Translated by George Martin. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1980. 583-585.

Hazan, M. (1997). Pasta. In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking(pp. 153-154). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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How to: Homemade Gnocchi

How to: Homemade Gnocchi

There are a variety of ways to make these delicious little morsels, or Italian style dumplings as they are sometimes called. Here's our recipe:

Ingredients:
Servings: 10 -12

  • 3 lbs baking potatoes ( 3 to 4 potatoes)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour 
  • 1 large or 2 medium sized eggs
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 7.5 quarts water
  • 6 cups ice 

Preparation: 

Boil potatoes whole for about 45 minutes, until soft. While they are still warm, peel them completely. Mash potatoes thoroughly and place on a clean, flat surface. In a large boiling pot, set 6 quarts of water to boil. Using the remaining water (6 cups), create an ice bath in a bowl beside the bowling water. Create a well in the center of the mashed potatoes and cover completely with flour. Crack egg(s) into the center of well and add salt. Using a fork, fold potato and flour into the egg and stir until egg is mixed in. Bring dough together and knead gently to form a ball. Continue to knead gently until dough is dry. Roll ball of dough into a 3/4 to 1 inch rolls and slice rolls into 1 inch long pieces. Drop these pieces into bowling water and bowl for about 1 minute, until they begin to float. Place cooked gnocchi into ice bath. Allow to sit in ice bath for several minutes, until completely cooled, then drain. Coat gnocchi in vegetable oil, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. 

 

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The Story Behind the Staple: Spaghetti and Meatballs

The Story Behind the Staple: Spaghetti and Meatballs

 Spaghetti and meatballs, perhaps the staple of Italian food in America, actually has a more interesting history than you might expect. The next time you serve this easy meal, share this story with the family.

According to legend, Marco Polo discovered the noodle on his travels through China and brought it back for Italians to enjoy. Needless to say, Italians are not very content with this legend and would prefer not to give Asia the credit for their signature food choice.

According to a National Geographic article published in 2005, the oldest noodle does have its origin in Asia. Scientists unearthed an over 4,000 year old bowl of long, yellow noodles in the Lajia archeological site in northwestern China.  But, according to numerous sources, when Marco Polo wrote about discovering pasta, he was really just talking about a different kind of pasta than that of Italians. Marco Polo traveled in China between 1271 and 1291 (give or take), but according to John Dickie and his Epic History of Italians and Their Food, there was hard grain durum wheat pasta in Italy at least a century before. Clearly, Marco Polo didn’t “discover” pasta any more than we discovered tomato sauce. 

But there are so many kinds of pasta out there…how did spaghetti become the staple? Italians can’t take credit for this one – well, not exactly. It was Italian-Americans who made spaghetti famous in America. Before over 4 million Italians immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pasta was rarely served as a main dish. But in America, pasta turned into the center piece for dishes because of its low cost and high carb content. Spaghetti was most likely the pasta that was most readily available.  Red sauce has a similar story. While the legend of its origin is very Italian, its prevalence in America has to do with the easy availability of crushed tomatoes.

What about meatballs? Those too take their origin in Italy but were reshaped (literally) in America. "Polpettes" were a popular, simple food in Italy in the late 19th century. They were small meatballs with an equal ratio of meat to bread crumbs. When Italians came to America and began earning more money than they did in Italy, meat became a staple rather than a delicacy. Ground beef, of course, was the cheapest option. Once shaped into large, flavorful balls they added the perfect finishing touch to a bowl of pasta.

The long story behind spaghetti and meatballs is just one example of how Italian food has been shaped and changed through culture and circumstance. One thing has remained the same – it’s sometimes the simplest foods that taste the best.

Sources:

John Dickie: Delzia: the Epic HIstory of the Italians and Their Food. pp 45-47

National Geographic: 4,000-Year-Old Noodles Found in China 

Culinary Lore: Marco Polo and His Chinese Noodles Pasta: Legend or Fact? 

National Pasta Association: Fun Facts  

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