Market Matters- Pasta All the Facts, Cut and Dried

I got quite a few direct emails asking me where I got the fusilli I used in yesterday’s Grilled Scallops with Fennel and Fresh Herb Fusilli.

Well, I got it at the Hollywood Farmers Market. We have an occasional vendor there that sells all sorts of handmade pastas both fresh and dried.

So for this weeks Market Matters I thought I would pass along a little bit about pasta.

Pasta was originally a Southern Italian dish. Particularly Sicilian. Eventually the cultivation of wheat moved into other areas of the country, and pasta became a common food item all over Italy.

Northern Italian pastas are generally pastas with fresh eggs and “soft” wheat. Soft wheat is lower in protein and gluten content. Bakers tend to like flour from soft wheat for batter-based foods like cakes and biscuits. Think cake flour. The soft wheat and egg produces pasta that has a silky texture. These pastas are often prepared as stuffed pastas (like ravioli) and in Italy they are called Pasta Fresca.

walnut pasta di campania

The South specializes in dried durum wheat semolina pasta. These are made with out egg and are typically dried, and are called Pasta Secca. They use the “hard” high gluten durum wheat because it allows the pasta to hold its sometimes-intricate shape better. Of which there are approximately 3500 different shapes.

The durum also helps the pasta maintain an al dente consistency in cooking. Which refers to the amount of “bite” the noodle has retained after cooking. Proper al dente is the point where the pasta is tender, but still chewy.

I prefer dried pasta to fresh pasta 9 out of 10 times. Fresh pasta has its place in our world. So please do not misunderstand me. Put the pens down and step away from the keyboard. I don’t need another server crash on my email account. Because all I am saying is the difference between dried and fresh pasta is pretty substantial. You can’t feel threatened by that. Can you?

There are three basic categories for Pasta Secca:

Pasta Corta- These are the short shapes and range from the very tiny orzo to the very familiar like penne and farfalle. They are often hollow so that they cook very evenly.

Pasta Lunga- these are the long (over 4 inches) ribbon noodles like spaghetti, fettuccine and tagliatelle.

Pasta All’Uovo Secca- These are the less common dried pasta that actually contain egg. They can only be made by a machine due to the tough nature of the dough. Their shapes can vary and they are often sold in spun nest shaped bundles.

The two basic categories of Pasta Fresca are:

Pasta Fresca All’Uovo- This is made from eggs and soft wheat flour. This is mostly eaten in the north of Italy and is easily molded into shapes like tortellini and cappelletti. Though rolled out sheets for lasagna, ravioli and fettuccini are also common.

Pasta di Semola Fresca- This is Southern Italy’s answer to a fresh pasta but it contains no eggs, and it made with the hard durum wheat semolina. It’s commonly used in some rustic shapes like orecchette and strozzapretti.

However, most US markets have a much more basic selection and can easily be divided into the fresh (egg and soft wheat 00 flour). And dried (durum wheat semolina).

Which is a shame. Because pasta made for the American market can be very disappointing. Especially the dried pastas. That’s because pasta made in this country or made else where for consumption in this country contain riboflavin or thiamine. Check the label. You will see what I mean. I have no idea why these are added. Because in my opinion all they do is make it that much harder to achieve al dente perfection.

It’s hard to find very good Italian pastas even in the very best markets. You can pick up a package that says made in Italy and think you are getting the real deal. Authentic Italian pasta should contain hard wheat and water. The very best ones have nothing else at all in them. That made in Italy pasta you just picked up in Whole Foods was very likely made in Italy for an American consumer and will contain additives. Just check the label if you don’t believe me.

That does not mean you can’t get good pasta in the United States. Good Italian markets or gourmet specialty shops will carry brands like DeLallo, Latini, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Maestri and La Molisana.

These brands are quite a bit more expensive (of course) than the grocery store varieties, but it really only works out to about 50 cents a person in the long run.

walnut fusilliNone of this means I don’t by cheaper “enriched” dried pastas. I do. Regularly. I like DeCecco and Barilla quite a bit. But sometimes you want to splurge and enjoy that special bite that can only come from the very best. So it’s good to arm yourself with the knowledge and understand what you are buying and what the differences are.

Sometimes I even go for the super splurge, and buy handmade pasta from the vendor at the Hollywood Farmers Market. I always buy the long curly noodle in the top photo. She calls it fusilli. If that is the correct Italian name I cannot say. All the fusilli I have ever seen fall into the short Pasta Corta category.

So when you have an ingredient with as much integrity as this beautiful handmade pasta you may want to keep it simple. I do. That’s why I am making a spare but classic Walnut Pasta di Campania. Truly a simple bit of pasta perfection. I am using my Hollywood Farmers Market fusilli, but tagliatelle is traditional.

Serves 4

  • 2 cups shelled walnuts
  • 1 cup chopped parsley leaves only
  • 1/4‑cup butter, room temperature
  • 3/4‑cup olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan, grated
  • 1/4‑cup heavy cream
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1‑pound pasta lunga

In a dry skillet set over medium high heat toast the walnut for two or three minutes, stirring often. They should be slightly browned and fragrant. Let the cool for 5 minutes before proceeding.

Put the walnuts into a food processor with the parsley leaves and pulse until a fine texture is achieved.

Add the butter, and pulse a few more times to mix somewhat.

Turn the machine on again and gradually add the olive oil in a steady stream with the blade turning continuously. Once a thick and creamy fully emulsified mixture is achieved turn off the machine and adds the garlic, Parmesan, cream and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Pulse the mixture several more times to mix thoroughly.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water and salted water until al dente. Drain and toss the pasta with the walnut sauce. Serve immediately with additional cheese for sprinkling.


Greg Henry