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Briefs: Things you should know about pasta

| Tuesday, March 13, 2012

• Pasta comes in all shapes and sizes because no single shape is perfect for everything. Thin, smooth noodles need light, smooth sauces. Heavier noodles hold heavier sauces. Flat ribbons are for cheese and cream sauces. Tubes, shells and curls are for chunky sauces with bits of meat and vegetables.

• Always start with a big, deep pot and lots of water. We all need room to reach our full potential.

• Temperature counts: Make sure the water is really boiling.

• Always salt the water just before you add the pasta. Salt added to the cooking water will flavor the pasta better than adding it later.

• Keep things stirred up at the beginning. We all get stuck without a little agitation.

• Don't add oil. If you do it right -- lots of water at a full boil and stir it at the beginning -- your pasta won't stick together. Besides, the oil will keep the sauce from clinging.

• When you drain pasta, save some cooking water. A splash or two of starchy cooking water is magic for pulling a sauce together.

• Never rinse pasta. The starch clinging to it helps it hold on to the sauce.

• Strike while it's hot. If you add hot pasta to hot sauce, it will absorb more sauce and flavor.

• Give things a chance to come together: Cook the pasta until it's almost, but not quite, done, then drain it, and add it to the sauce. Add a splash of cooking water. Stir it together and cook for a couple of minutes longer. Add anything you need to finish it, like cheese or fresh herbs, and serve.

Pancetta continues obsession with cured pig

Bacon usually is made from the belly or side of the pig. It is cured (either dry or wet) with salt, spices and, sometimes, sugar, then smoked Pancetta is the Italian version. Typically made from the belly, the curing process is the same, but the meat usually is not smoked. During curing, it often is seasoned with black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and herbs.

While most American bacon is sliced into thin strips, slabs of pancetta usually are rolled into a log. And that's how it's sold at the deli. The log can be sliced to any thickness. Most grocers also sell it in packages pre-sliced and, more commonly, cut into thick cubes.

Thanks to smoking, bacon usually has a slightly brownish color; pancetta tends to be bright or deep red.

The flavor of pancetta tends to be clean and assertively bacony -- go figure! -- and just a bit sweet, especially compared to commercially produced bacon. The curing process for the latter often is as little as a few minutes. Pancetta is cured for days or weeks.

Pancetta can be eaten thinly sliced and raw, similar to prosciutto, but more often it is cooked, which gives it an intensely savory flavor. Think of it as maxed-out bacon.

Pancetta is a must-have for authentic carbonara. And browning small chunks of it is a classic start to many Italian recipes.

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