In its various forms, pasta has become a part of almost every country. Some say that Marco Polo brought the idea of pasta from China to Europe, but archaeological evidence has shown that it had been in both places long before then, so after doing a great deal of study, I found that nobody really knows for sure what culture pasta truly came from (if it was just one).
Many people think of pasta as regular egg noodles, spaghetti, macaroni, and lasagna, but once you start looking around, there are many more completely different varieties. In Asia alone, although some of their noodles are wheat-based, they use a great amount of rice noodles, but also some with a variety of other starches. These other starches include such things as potato flour, buckwheat flour, and mungbean starch, and may be eaten either hot or cold. Noodles in Asia are generally cooked by steaming, stir-frying, and even deep frying. They also have a large variety of different dumplings, which would also classify as pasta. Germans have their spaetzle, which is made with flour, eggs, water (or milk), and salt, made very soft and pushed through a colander into boiling water, then tossed with butter sauce, soups, and other dishes. In Poland they have their pierogi, half-moon shaped pork filled dumplings.
The most common Italian-style pasta refers to a dough made with semolina (durum wheat) flour mixed with water or milk and sometimes eggs. Semolina is the superior flour that is used because it doesn't absorb too much water and is perfect when properly cooked al dente (just slightly firm). The most common source of pasta is dried, and when looking for the best brand of dried pasta, even Italians in Italy admit that Barilla is the best brand. When I was in Italy, some friends I made there were surprised that Barilla was popular here since it is so good.
It's really not all that difficult to make fresh pasta either. All you need to buy is a pasta roller and the few basic ingredients. Generally, with fresh pasta, eggs are used as the liquid to better hold the more delicate pasta together. You can also experiment by adding other ingredients, such as adding herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, or even some sweeter ingredients for a dessert pasta. When you add extra ingredients, be careful with how much liquid you add to the pasta, as with many ingredients (such as spinach) you will need less liquid. Since the pasta is rolled out as small as it is, it's best to puree the added ingredients rather than leaving them chunky. Contrary to dried pasta's almost indefinite shelf life, fresh pasta is best only within a few days of making it unless you freeze it or dry it yourself. Your pasta roller should come with directions on how to roll out the pasta. You can cut the pasta into a variety of shapes and sizes, and even make fillings and form the pasta into raviolis, tortellini, or other common (and not so common) shapes.
When cooking pasta ALWAYS make sure the water is boiling heavily and that there is a much larger quantity of water than pasta, as if both of those conditions don't exist, the pasta will release too much starch and become sticky. Also, make sure you salt the water. Although it was a slight exaggeration, one chef I worked under always informed us how (in a real deep accent) "ze water must taste like ze sea." You should always salt your water (taste the water to make sure it's the right consistency), as that adds greatly to the flavor of the pasta.
There is a large variety of pasta sauces you can use as well. For a lighter summer dish, you may want to use a simple broth, aglio e olio (garlic and hot olive oil) sauce, Checca (lightly toast some garlic in olive oil then add basil and tomatoes until warm, season) sauce, or maybe a pesto (an uncooked puree of basil, garlic, and parmesan, then adding olive oil to your preferred consistency - for pasta you can also finish it with cream) sauce. For not so light pasta dishes, you can use a carbonara (make a basic cream sauce starting it with cooking bacon until very crispy and finishing it with romano cheese) sauce, alfredo (basic cream sauce finished with parmesan) sauce, a variety of other cream sauces, bolognese (meat sauce) sauce, marinara (a cooked tomato sauce made with garlic, onions, and herbs) sauce, other tomato-based sauces, and many more.
You can combine in the sauce and/or garnish pasta with a variety of ingredients. The most common meats include Italian sausage, chicken, seafood, ham, duck confit, anchovies, and beef. Other common ingredients include parmesan (or other) cheese, grilled or roasted vegetables (large dice various vegetables, toss them in oil, garlic, salt & pepper, and roast them quickly to golden brown in a VERY hot oven), roasted pepper strips, mushrooms, and a variety of herbs.
Pasta is such a versatile ingredient that it has an almost endless amount of variations that can be used in some sense in almost any theme of a meal or restaurant.
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