Extra Helpings: Pasta Primer


Susan asks: Why can’t I make pasta? Mine is always too hard, or it’s mushy or it clumps up.

Susan, you made me remember a joke I heard on Ellen the other day: What do you call a fake noodle? An impasta.

Okay, back to work.

If your pasta is hard, it’s because it hasn’t been cooked long enough. Pasta is ready when it is al dente, which means tender but firm. It should offer a slight resistance when bitten. You should also see no white in the core when you cut into it.

If your pasta is mushy, it’s because (wait for it…) you cooked it too long. Follow the suggested cooking times on the box. If the pasta is fresh, ask the seller how long to cook it (usually it’s not more than a few minutes).

As for the clumping, always cook pasta in lots of water so it will have room to move around and cook evenly. Think 6 quarts of water (with a little salt) for 1 pound of pasta. Also, boil the water first and then add the pasta slowly so it continues to boil. Stir the pasta until it returns to a boil and then periodically after that.

And speaking of the boiling water… DON’T THROW IT ALL OUT! Reserve a cup or two to thicken the sauce with the starch in the water.

If the pasta does end up sticking together, pour hot pasta water over it (another reason to save a cup or two). You can also spray it with oil and stir it gently with a rubber spatula.

Here are a few more tips for making perfect pasta:

• Place a wooden spoon in the pot of boiling water and pasta to prevent boil-overs.

• If you don’t have a pasta pot (a pot with a strainer insert), use a mesh strainer to scoop the noodles out of the boiling water.

• There’s a lot of debate about whether you should rinse pasta after cooking. Mama’s take? Rinsing DOES stop the cooking process, but it also makes it cold. And, I think it keeps the sauce from sticking to the noodles.

• Keep the pasta warm after cooking it. Cold pasta sticks together.

• Refrigerate leftover pasta in a container of cold water for a day or two.

Next, we’ll tackle pairing pasta with the right pasta sauce! Buon Appetito!


How to Pick The Perfect Potato For A Recipe


Shelly asks: I used regular baking potatoes for my potato salad and they basically turned into mush. Are certain potatoes better for certain recipes?

Most of us learn the hard way (or I should say the mush way?) that you can’t use the same type of potato for every recipe. But you should still use the same criteria when you go about selecting potatoes for whatever you’re making:

1. Potatoes should be smooth and they should all be about the same shape and size so they’ll cook evenly.
2. Pass up potatoes that have bad spots, wrinkled skins, cuts, bruises or green coloring.
3. Store fresh potatoes in a cool, dark place… NOT the refrigerator.

Each variety of potato has a “best way” to cook it. Here’s some guidance on how to pick the perfect potato for your particular recipe:

Bake, mash, French fry, roast

Boil, steam, roast, sauté, soups, salads, scalloped and au gratin 

Boil, steam mash, French fry, roast, soups, salads, au gratin

Mash, steam, bake, boil, roast, French Fry 

Boil, steam, bake 

 Boil, bake, steam

We tend to think of potatoes as villains when it comes to healthy eating. Potatoes aren’t the bad guys, it’s the oil they’re fried in or the sour cream and cheese that they’re topped with… and that has less to do with the potato and more to do with the person eating it!

Potatoes are rich in vitamin C and potassium and loaded with soluble and insoluble fiber (which keeps the digestive tract working and slows down digestion so you feel full longer). A medium baked potato only has 161 calories!

Tomorrow, a yummy delish recipe for your next picnic: All-American Potato Salad (hey, summer’s not over yet!)

(A big shout out to my pals at the United States Potato Board and the Washington State Potato Commission!)

I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: mamashighstrung@gmail.com