27 January 2014

Pasta - Part II: Different Types of Pasta

Spaghetti: Spaghetti is what most of us have in mind when we think of pasta, and with good reason.  It’s quick to cook and it provides an excellent base for sauces.  Wrapping it around a fork is both fun and challenging.  Although it lacks some of the qualities of other pastas, such as crevices for storing sauce of cheese, it more than makes up for this because not only can you often trap sauce or cheese between the layers of pasta as you wind it around the fork, but because you never have to grab the pasta with the tines themselves, they're left free to pick up meat clumps.  Spaghetti provides a great opportunity to choose your own pasta-sauce ratio. 

Vermicelli: Some of you might find this hard to believe, but there was a time in my life when I wasn’t willing to eat spaghetti and would only eat vermicelli.  I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I guess I thought that spaghetti was too thick and too dense—essentially that it was too much pasta.  It’s really strange to realize that I thought this way because it’s not like I was pairing it with anything else at the time except maybe some parmesan cheese. 

Spaghettini: But then things got even worse when I went down another size to spaghettini.  Have you ever eaten spaghettini?  It’s really skinny, but I used to love it.  And then one day my mum overcooked it into a big mushy blob and it made me so sick that not only could I not eat it at that point, but I would never be able to eat it again.  I love having spaghetti bolognese, but I honestly have no idea what it would be like with spaghettini because I can’t go near that pasta again.  Overcooked pasta is bad at the best of times, but when you’re cooking a pasta as fine as spaghettini, you really must remain vigilant because if it’s overcooked, you might as well put it straight into the garbage.

Fettuccine / Linguine:
I have no use for this pasta.  I can’t figure out why certain dishes require this type of noodle, but I don’t eat those dishes and I can’t imagine how this pasta could benefit me.  I don’t know anything about the history of pasta, but these noodles have always seemed like a totally unnecessary evolution of spaghetti.  Like one day a group of people were sitting around together and one of them said, “You know what would make spaghetti even better?  Flattening it!”  And everyone became really enthusiastic because it did seem like a good idea, but once it was done, no one could figure out how exactly it had improved on anything at all and eventually it was relegated to the sea food dishes because the only person stupid enough to eat sea food (in general, but here specifically with pasta) is also stupid enough to think that there is a benefit to a flat noodle.

My life will never be any better than it was at this
precise moment.
Radiatori: I have tweeted about this pasta before, and I stand behind that tweet: radiator pasta is, hands down, my favourite kind of pasta.  There is no wrong way to eat this pasta.  If you have it plain with a little bit of butter, it’s going to be great because droplets of melted butter will melt into the folds so that when you bite down, it will squirt out into your mouth.  If you have it with just melted cheese, it’s also amazing for the same reason that the cheese will melt into the folds.  I don’t know how serious you guys are about melted cheese on hot foods, but it’s really important that the food that you’re melting the cheese onto is porous or has folds so that there’s somewhere for the cheese to go.  There’s nothing worse than investing a lot of energy into grating cheese only to have it end up as a lump at the bottom of the bowl.  But if you pick the right base food, that cheese will coat it and seep into it, and it will be the best thing you’ve ever had.  The same goes for bolognese sauce, although admittedly bolognese is the most forgiving.  Even with a pasta like spaghetti, which doesn’t have any pockets to hold butter/cheese/sauce, the sauce is still going to coat it.  And if you’re twirling it around  a fork then you can usually trap some of the sauce between the coils of pasta, so you really don’t have to worry too much about your sauce-to-pasta ratio.  The main benefit of radiator pasta over other forms is that because of their ruffled and folded edges, radiators typically manage to have the largest surface area, which means there’s more to be covered by sauce or cheese.  But it also means that it’s dense, yet airy.  This is probably the best quality a pasta can have, and one that is shared by rotelle, fusilli, and rotini.  Radiator is the best at achieving this delicate balance by far, and that is why it is my favourite pasta.
Rotelle / Wagon Wheels This is probably number two on my list after radiator.  I love this pasta and I don’t know why!  There is definitely something magnetic about it because one time my niece was eating them and accidentally dropped one on the floor.  She was just little girl and I don’t know how much floor-dirt babies can eat, so I sacrificed the noodle to the garbage.  But then she had a major meltdown and refused to eat anything else, and eventually I just took her out of her high chair.  The first thing she did when I turned my back was go straight to the garbage, fish out that one noodle (it was literally in a garbage can, sitting amongst garbage), and pop it into her mouth.  And then she just stopped crying.  I realized at that moment that although my niece and I have almost nothing in common (she won’t eat potatoes), there is a little bit of me in her because losing even one wagon wheel pasta is a huge tragedy and it’s definitely something that warrants a tantrum.  But what makes this pasta so much better than others?  I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it has something to do with its wheel shape (duh).  What I mean is that when you consider a wagon wheel and how the spokes are there to maintain the circular shape and ensure that the wheel doesn’t just collapse, then you’ll understand what’s so great about this pasta.  It’s really sturdy, but because it’s also soft pasta, you exercise so much power over it.  You can break it at will!  One of my favourite things to do is to push a full wheel up to my top front teeth, hold it in place, and then burst my tongue through the spokes.  Admittedly this pasta is not the best for sauce because there’s not much to hold onto, but it still works really well with butter or cheese.  Obviously all pasta is good with butter, but the shape of the wheels gives something for the cheese to melt onto and stick to.  Unlike something like penne, where the cheese typically just slips off, the various spokes provide the cheese something to hold onto.  If you’re really lucky the cheese might melt over the entire surface of the wheel so that you end up with something that resembles a drum.

I put zero effort into this one, but it was still a great excuse to remember that 2008 USA Sista Road Trip.

Conchiglie / Shell Pasta: There was a time in my life when I refused to believe that anything was better than shell pasta.  It was probably around 2007.  By then I had probably already had radiator and wagon wheel, but for some reason shell pasta was just really doing it for me.  Shell pasta has a lot of really great design features (actually it only has one, but it’s really great).  Because it’s shaped like a shell, it functions as a pocket  to catch whatever you drape over it—it’s like eating a spoonful of spoons, but the spoons are made of pasta and are edible.  One minor complaint about shell pasta is that it can sometimes be difficult to spear them with your fork, but it’s not difficult enough to stop you from enjoying this fine pasta.  Life is always placing obstacles in your way, and you just have to learn to overcome them.

Conchiglioni: For anyone who doesn’t know, conchiglioni are those giant shells that you’re supposed to stuff with something.  You probably can’t eat them plain, although I have thought about it.  I’ve thought about these giant shells a lot, actually.  Whenever I am in the pasta aisle I spend a lot of time staring at them and daring myself to buy them, but I haven’t taken the plunge yet.  I’m waiting for someone to stuff them with spaghetti sauce, grate some cheese on them, and pop them into the oven to bake. *cough*  Probably delicious, right?

Here is some penne that I ate one
time. It's totally smothered in cheese.
Perfect midnight snack.
Penne Rigate: Penne is a difficult pasta for me and I never really know how I feel about it.  One thing that I definitely do not like about penne is that it takes a lot longer to cook than any other pasta I typically eat.  The pay off, I suppose, is that penne is a lot meatier than other pastas so it makes sense that it takes so much longer to cook.  Penne is a perfectly acceptable pasta choice, but because there are better shapes out there, it’s not one I often go for.  If I do have penne, I typically have it plain with cheddar cheese because I don’t think it’s really a sauce pasta.  Because it’s a hollow tube it seems like there’s a lot of potential there to catch sauce or cheese, but it never really works out that way.  It should go without saying that the only penne worth eating is rigate.  I can’t imagine anyone ever opting for the smooth penne.
*NB. I didn't mention penne lisce because I can't imagine anyone even eats that. 

Macaroni: Macaroni is another kind of pasta that while I really like, I don’t actually eat very often.  It never seems worth buying macaroni because the shape just isn’t as good as other pastas.  I usually eat them as the pasta component to macaroni and cheese, but just because they’re the expected pasta to have in this dish, that shouldn’t stop you from experimenting with other forms, too.  Shell pasta is particularly good in macaroni and cheese, and I bet wagon wheel or radiator would be amazing as well.

Orzo: What the hell is orzo?  Rice-shaped pasta?  I hate it.  In general I’m not a big fan of mini-pasta (there are also tiny shells or those star-shaped things), but orzo is the absolute worst.  It’s like a bunch of slimy maggots and has neither the good qualities of rice nor of pasta.  One time I had to eat it and it felt like reverse-vomiting.  Maybe you’re thinking that all eating is reverse-vomiting, but this actually felt like someone recorded a video of me puking up rice and then played it in reverse.  It felt like watching that.

Fusilli: This is the most under-appreciated of all the pasta shapes that I eat.  I really love it, but for some reason I don’t buy it very often and I certainly don’t praise it as much as I should.  It has a lot of the same benefits as radiator pasta because it has a lot of surface area as well as nooks and crannies for sauce and cheese.  Radiator is better only because it has a more satisfying texture to it, partly because there’s more ridges to it, but also because for some reason it’s just better if it’s slightly undercooked.  For some reason I think this has to do with it being kind of a cube-shape, but I can’t justify that logic in anyway.

Rotini: This pasta is possibly slightly better than fusilli even though they are very similar in shape.  The benefit is that rotini is slightly tighter, so it’s denser to bite done on, but there’s enough space between the coils to give the pasta nice bounce.  Again, I don’t buy this pasta nearly as often as I should.

Farfalle / Bow Tie: I’m all for novelty-shaped pasta, but this just doesn’t do it for me.  It doesn’t have enough body to it.  It's like cutting a square from a sheet of lasagna noodles and twisting it.  The little gathering of pasta in the centre is the only thing that gives this pasta any sort of shape, and I hope that by now that you have realized that one of the most important qualities a pasta can have is good dimensions.  Farfalle just doesn't cut it, but I think I have seen it used in soup a few times, and that would probably be okay if you're into that kind of thing.  

Lumache / Snail-Shell: This is another pasta shape that I don’t have too much experience with, although I have nothing against it.  Now that I’m thinking of it, maybe I should buy a bag because it seems like this pasta merges the best qualities of macaroni with the best qualities of shell pasta.  They would probably make an excellent base for macaroni and cheese.  So if anyone is wondering what I want for my birthday (it’s coming up, or will be depending on when you’re reading this), you could get me a bag of lumache and I’ll try it out and get back to you.
Pasta art in Barcelona.
Lasagna Noodles: The only reason to eat this pasta is if you’re eating lasagna.  There’s no other way I’m going to cut my pasta with a knife.  Now might be a good time to mention that I absolutely hate it when people cut their spaghetti in half.  The same goes for people who break their spaghetti in half before cooking it.  I can’t even eat that garbage.  No one is more spoiled or coddled than me, but it takes a special kind of uselessness to only be able to eat spaghetti that has been halved.  You wrap it around your fork.  In hindsight, this note probably would have fit better under the spaghetti heading.

Tortellini: Olivieri tri-colour three-cheese tortellini is one of my major weaknesses.  I cannot exist in the same space as this pasta without eat it all up immediately.  Sometimes I am so full that I can’t move except to bring another forkful to my greedy mouth.  This pasta is delicious, especially when smothered in butter.  I went through a weird phase when I was really obsessed with grating parmesan on top of it, but I’ve since outgrown that and don’t like it at all anymore.  The orange colour is my favourite, but I had to find out the hard way that even though the green ones are my least favourite, if you remove all of the green ones, it really takes away from the overall experience.  I have never had any other form of tortellini and don’t even know if they exist.

Ravioli: I think I have had ravioli once in my life—in Italy (yes, Italy)—and it was fine, but ultimately unnecessary. 

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