Ingredient of the Week: Pasta
Pasta is an Italian speciality. It is something, for some reason, I didn’t like eating as a child, but now I love it. It is typically made from wheat flour and water or egg, but these days you can get several other varieties including red lentil or chickpea. It comes in many shapes and sizes, from long, thin spaghetti, to hollow tubes such as penne or rigatoni, to spirals or twists, fusilli, to bows or farfalle and shells, conchiglie. It is available in fresh or dried form, wholewheat or white. There is no nutritional difference between the shapes of pasta, however wholewheat or brown varieties, like in rice, have a much higher fibre content. Also the fresh variety of pasta is generally lower in calories than dried, but it also contains less fibre.
It is also possible to find varying colours of pasta, including red, green and purple. This is achieved by adding vegetable powders, such as spinach, tomato or beetroot to it. However this is mainly for appearance, it doesn’t generally impact on nutritional value and only slightly alters the taste.
Why is it good for me?
The primary nutritional benefit for pasta is that it provides plenty of carbohydrate or energy for the muscles to work. This is why it is assumed that athletes eat so much of it. I have stayed in several hotels over the past 10 years of racing my tandem, where pasta has even been laid out for us at breakfast. Personally I can’t think of anything worse than plain pasta for breakfast, but its whatever works for you I guess. Lately there has been a shift towards more nutritious and varied sources of carbohydrate, such as quinoa, rice, beans, lentils and couscous, but you can’t deny that pasta does provide you with plenty of energy and help you to perform at your best.
Other nutritional qualities in pasta are that it contains several minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, while it also contains a range of B vitamins. The exact nutritional content in pasta depends on what brand you buy. Some brands use enriched flours and add additional micronutrients, whereas others do not. It is worth checking the nutritional value of different pastas available to you, to find the one that best suits your requirements.
How do I prepare it?
Both fresh and dried shop-bought pasta are really easy to prepare for cooking, as all you need to do is weigh out how much you need and add it to a pan filled with plenty of boiling water. Most recipes call for you to add salt to the water, but this really isn’t necessary and better for you if you don’t. Apparently it is very easy to make your own pasta, although it is something I have not yet attempted. All you need is flour, water and sometimes egg. It is brought together to form a dough, which is then rolled out very thin and shaped to requirement.
How do I cook it?
Pasta is really easy to cook, I simply simmer it in a pan of boiling water for 10-12 minutes if it is dried, less if it is fresh. You can also get a special pasta/rice cooker that you can put in the microwave if you prefer. There is not much that pasta doesn’t go with. The obvious recipe suggestion is bolognese, but there are definitely more interesting dishes you can make with it as well. Try it in a soup, like this cabbage ministrone one.
Pasta works really well with a tomato based sauce, such as this Mediterranean fish one or this caponata. The sauce doesn’t need to be tomato based though and this healthy smoked salmon pasta primavera uses yogurt instead of cream. A lot of popular pasta sauces, such as carbonara use cream as their base, which definitely aren’t as healthy a choice, so always bare this in mind when choosing what to eat.
Pasta doesn’t necessarily need to be served with a sauce. You can use plenty of vegetables to keep it interesting and healthy, while also having plenty of flavour. A couple of my favourite suggestions include this bacon and cauliflower pasta, this bacon, mushroom and chard pasta or this chicken and roasted vegetable one.
Personally I prefer to eat smaller shaped pasta, such as penne, fusilli or conchiglie. Trying to eat spaghetti when you can’t see can often get messy, especially if its in a tomato sauce. I try to avoid wearing white if I plan to eat pasta when I’m out. As it is such a good source of carbohydrate, I like to eat it quite regularly and a pasta bolognese is one of my pre-race meals of choice. However, I hate it if it is over cooked and mushy, and sometimes it goes like this when it is left out on a buffet in hotels, so if this is the case I will avoid it. I also much prefer it when it is freshly cooked, like in a proper Italian restaurant and I plan to learn to make my own at some point, but good pasta needs to be delicate and thats not something I’m usually known for being. If you have any pasta based recipes or stories you would like to share, then please leave a comment below.
Thank you for reading and speak soon.