Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Springtime Pasta

In a recent post about baked pasta I beckoned readers to indulge in a final satisfying dinner of hot and bubbling lasagna before the last chills of the season abate.  Now as the days grow warmer and we peel off the heavy blankets one by one, so too do the pasta entrees we so love.  That heavy blanket of red gravy is relied on much less frequently in lieu of lighter pestos and thinner cream sauces.  By summer, pasta will take on the form of main dish salads seasoned with dressings.

Why do many of us love pasta entrees so much?  Perhaps it is the versatility of ingredients that may be incorporated and swapped out with the change of seasons.  There are numerous different sauces that may be tossed into an endless choice of ingredient combinations.  Even the shape of the pasta used presents an array of variation.  Farfalle, or bow tie, pasta is a popular spring favorite; penne is a widely preferred choice all year around.  Shells, orchiette, cavatappi and cavatelli are other favored short pastas.  There are just as many long types of pasta in addition to spaghetti, including fettuccine, linguine, angel hair, fusilli and tagliatelle.  Sauces range from traditional Genovese pesto to pestos made with varying herb and nut combinations, plus vinaigrettes, creamy white wine sauces and cheesy dressings.  For a lighter tomato sauce with a little seasoned crunchiness, combine cherry tomatoes with garlic croutons and a little olive oil in a food processor. For added crunch factor, you can add some nuts. 

Pasta dishes have taken on the role of a palette to feature ingredients from every ethnicity around the globe.  Spaghetti combines with shrimp, cucumber, carrot and a vinaigrette of sesame oil, rice vinegar and chili-garlic sauce for an Asian summer salad.  Combine wagon wheel pasta with pinto beans, cubes of jicama, avocado, tomato and cheddar jack cheese; toss with green chilies and a creamy salsa dressing and you have a hearty southwestern vegetarian meal.

For spring, I enjoy showcasing brilliantly hued vegetables with the neutral shaded pastas.  The verdure of asparagus or peas combined with crimson grape tomatoes brings the dish to life.  Spring ham, succulent shrimp and the pretty pinks of bacon, pancetta or smoked salmon are my preferred meat options, although I will often opt for cheeses instead of meat or fish to toss in the pasta.   The versatility of pasta dishes allows you to come home, peruse your refrigerator and pluck out whatever odds and ends you find that are waiting to be utilized. One of my favorites is fettuccine alfredo with mushrooms, peas and ham.  The additional ingredients are vast, from typical springtime asparagus and ham to roasted shallots and Gorgonzola to shrimp with broccoli and grape tomatoes.  Leave no stone unturned, any combination can work with the right sauce.  Sometimes a sauce is not even necessary, simply toss your chosen combination with olive oil, add a generous amount of grated pecorino Romano cheese and you are good to go. I must take this moment to praise my husband’s wonderful creation that I was presented with last night: he combined sliced Kielbasa, shell pasta, broccoli, red onion and melted Muenster cheese.  The salty smokiness of the sausage married well with the sweetness of the red onion and the other ingredients, well done, Brian!   Now I’ll share one of my spring pasta entrees, all you need with this is a salad, a crusty loaf of fresh Italian bread and a nice wine.

Shells with Chicken, Bacon and Peas

8 ounces medium shell pasta
1 pound thick-cut bacon
3 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/3 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese

Cut the bacon crosswise into 1-inch pieces and set aside.  Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, fry the bacon until only the edges are beginning to crisp.  Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside.  Add the chicken to the skillet and cook until no longer pink when a piece is cut.  Add the garlic and sauté for another 3 minutes.  Drain the cooked pasta and add to the skillet, along with the cooked bacon, the olive oil, peas and cheese.  Toss to combine thoroughly.  Turn out into a pasta serving bowl.  Serves four.

A final word about pasta: a healthful diet includes carbs.  A pasta dish can be a well-balanced meal when it includes vegetables and a protein source.  When the shape of pasta you desire is available in whole grain, opt for this variation for pasta that is packed with health benefits.  To counter the naysayer who loves to whine ‘Oh, but whole grain pasta tastes funny,’ let’s get one fact straight for those who have been dissuaded from sampling it: pasta, whether made from processed flour or whole wheat flour, has very little taste on its own.  Pasta absorbs and takes on the flavors of the other ingredients that are mixed with it.  Use high quality olive oil and only the freshest ingredients throughout, and your pasta dish will not taste “funny”.   Old World Italians did not have access to processed and so-called enriched flour, and there was nothing funny about their pasta – they took their pasta very seriously, hence the starring role it plays in our entrees today.

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