Pasta and noodles

Pasta and noodles

Claire Thomson
12 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Mike Lusmore

Pasta reaches far and wide, from the traditional, rich fresh egg doughs rolled and cut by hand in the north of Italy and beyond, to the coarse semolina pastes of southern Italy fashioned by thumb and forefinger, the ‘phantom pasta’ category that is gnocchi and gnudi, and the Berber-invented couscous of northern Algeria. To tether these ingredients to the storecupboard, I will concentrate my efforts specifically on dried pasta, the sort that you buy in packets and then try desperately to duplicate in the next shop, to enable the seamless move from one bag to the next. It’s usually made from hard durum wheat, the same as used to make bread, ground down and worked with water, shaped (extruded), dried and ready for use. Dried pasta is an ingredient that is as prolific as it is eccentric in terms of the sheer number of shapes and sizes. It is a grocery essential. Dried pasta is not subordinate to fresh; it is a different ingredient.

Factory or artisan produced, when purchasing dried pasta look for ‘bronze die’ on the label. Bronze die pasta is superior to mass-produced Teflon-cast pasta because it is extruded through traditional bronze shapes which help to create a naturally rough, porous exterior, giving the cooked pasta an irregular surface for sauce to cling to. I find some low-cost brands turn too quickly from being still gristly to flabby and bloated with the cooking water. Cook cautiously, and err on the side of less cooking time. Ideally all pasta should be cooked with a slight resistance in the centre, especially if the pasta is to finish cooking in any sauce before serving. Any residual heat will then make for pasta with perfect bite. I once worked with a very assertive chef, higher up the pecking order than me, who said he could hear when pasta was perfectly cooked. I remember laughing at him, thinking to myself how pretentious he sounded. Years later, and much less recalcitrant I suppose, I will sometimes find myself snapping a strand of spaghetti close to my ear rather than biting it to see if it is ready. It only really works with long dried pasta but, sure enough, there is a different sound to the snap of uncooked and the snap of al dente. It is a quiet, tiny snap buffered by just the right proportion of softened, cooked exterior.

The pasta shape you choose must always be governed by the ingredients or sauce you want to serve it with. Short of giving a geometry lesson on pasta shapes, an awesome collection if ever there was one, I give you here a grocery-shop quartet for daily use: spaghetti or linguine (thin and long); tagliatelle, fettuccine or pappardelle (flat and long); penne, orecchiette or conchiglie (short and shapely); and orzo, ditalini or tripolini (tiny). Understanding the different properties these three styles of dried pasta deliver will determine the ingredients you shop for and stockpile on your shelves and in your fridge.

Pasta bridges gastronomy in a way that not many other ingredients are capable of. From fantastically elite truffle dishes, to cacio e pepe (made with just pasta, Pecorino and generous helpings of freshly ground black pepper), pasta is matchless in its versatility. Or rather, nearly matchless: noodles. Empirical tattletales will have it that the Venetian Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy on his return from China in the thirteenth century. And sure enough, in his journals, grandly titled Description of the World, he writes about macaroni being eaten and enjoyed in some Italian settlements on his return. The nonchalance with which he mentions it implies that pasta consumption was not so new to Italy. Myopic and at best sequential, the myth of Marco attempts to explain how two distinct continents came to share such a similar and dominant food source. Plain and simple, the likely truth was that the Chinese and much of Asia had long been expert noodle-makers and the Mediterranean, North Africa and some of the Middle East had also been making and enjoying pasta in some form for at least a couple of centuries before Marco ever made tracks to travel east.

En masse, noodles represent an inexpensive and filling ingredient. Shopping for noodles can be an intimidating task for the uninitiated. Stand in the aisles of any Asian supermarket and you will likely face a wall of noodles, all snappily dressed in very different-looking cellophane packets. Noodles come from far and wide, with China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and south-east Asia all having their respective noodle styles. Mostly made from rice, wheat and starches like sweet potato or mung bean, dried noodles represent a comprehensive culinary pivot for the home cook. A basic rule of thumb when choosing noodles and what to serve with them is to cook to the same cuisine as the origin of the noodle. Noodles can be enjoyed hot or cold – hot in a broth, with ramen or pho being the most widely recognized, or stir-fried, or served cold and dressed, and with raw vegetables.

Wheat noodles are similar to pasta in that they are made from ground wheat grain, with salt added to soften the proteins and bind the dough. Asian wheat noodles come in various widths and their cooking times correspond accordingly. Chinese egg noodles made with wheat flour, like egg pasta, are to my mind best eaten fresh. Likewise, fat chewy udon noodles are best made and served fresh, not dried. Nonetheless, there is more than plenty to be getting along with; dried wheat noodles are a boon for any self-respecting storecupboard. And, for a super-quick noodle fix, I’m all for having a few of those instant noodle packets on my shelves; just ditch the seasoning packet and add your own flavour.

Japanese buckwheat noodles (soba) are an interesting and gluten-free alternative to wheat noodles. Pure 100% buckwheat noodles have a distinctive savoury, sweet, nutty taste with a dark freckled appearance. Soba noodles are good served hot or cold. It’s worth noting here that some varieties of soba noodles have wheat flour added in the noodle or to coat the noodle and are not gluten-free.

Rice noodles are different from wheat, chiefly in cooking time, and are mostly sold dried. Like wheat, though, they are also sold in a dizzying variety. Rice noodles are made on an industrial scale by soaking rice grains and grinding them into a paste to cook.

The cooked paste is kneaded, rolled flat and cut down to size. The noodles are then steamed, cooled and dried, ready for packaging. From wide and flat ribbons, to slender thin shiny sticks, to the tangle of vermicelli, dried rice noodles are an easy grocery staple. Some rice noodles need boiling for only a few minutes, while others are simply soaked in hot water to rehydrate.

Most slippery of all noodles is the starch variety, made with mung bean, corn or sweet potato. These noodles are most commonly used in stir-fries, and cold in noodle salads or Vietnamese rice rolls. They take very little cooking and maintain a glassy, chewy, almost jelly-like texture when ready. Like rice noodles, they are gluten-free. Perhaps the least accessible of the three, starch noodles are worth seeking out but can be interchangeable with any thinner rice noodle varieties.

If there exists such a thing as good storecupboard husbandry, while the chef in me enthuses over new ingredients, gallivanting around any new food markets and shops I come across, there is a part of me that baulks at the clutter of having too many opened packets on my kitchen shelves – nothing worse than tiny amounts left in packets destined for a controversial gene pool come mealtimes. When it comes to pasta and noodle buying, far better practice is to stock a few varieties, to cook with them exhaustively, and to enjoy their different qualities before moving on and experimenting with a new style. A well-stocked kitchen needn’t mean piles of expensive and esoteric ingredients (here lies waste and all sorts of culinary trouble), but crucial, necessary items that will make day-to-day cooking easier. Know what you have on your shelves and use any dried pasta and noodle packets within one month of opening, as they can become brittle, cooking unevenly, if stored for too long.

If cooking well is about fostering a balance between making fast food from scratch and crafting dishes of subtlety and sustenance, pasta and noodles support a kitchen and its cooks in a way that very few other ingredients are capable of.

Larder basics

Dried pasta

spaghetti or linguine (long and thin)

tagliatelle, fettuccine or pappardelle (long and flat)

penne, conchiglie or orecchiette (short and shapely)

orzo, ditalini or tripolini (tiny)


rice noodles

wheat noodles

mung or starch noodles

buckwheat/soba noodles

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