In recent years, we’ve come to view pasta as a sinister foe. It’s made almost entirely of wheat, is relatively high on the glycemic index, and is far too often coated with rich, fatty sauces. At restaurants, we bypass it for grilled fish and steamed vegetables. Even the food pyramid has been revised to reflect smaller portions of pasta. But in spite of our claims to the contrary, most of us are secretly smitten with the stuff. Creamy fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti topped with a fragrant puttanesca sauce, the first intoxicating bite of a well-crafted lasagna—what’s not to love?
So if you’re a closet noodle-head, know that it’s OK to adore the stuff. Others before you have, for nearly 2,000 years. In one now-famous account, legendary explorer Marco Polo was said to have returned from China with noodles in 1295, but most food historians agree that Italians were eating pasta long before that. Wall paintings on Etruscan tombs show utensils that are similar to today’s pasta-making tools. And Apicius, the famous Roman gastronome, wrote about a baked pasta dish in the 1st century AD that sounds like an early version of lasagna.
A big bowl of pasta isn’t the cornerstone of a well-rounded diet, but there are ways to make noodles more nutritious. Start with organic pasta; whole-grain selections are always more healthful, but sometimes the sacrifice in texture and flavor isn’t worth the additional 2 grams of fiber. Better to boost bulk with dense, vegetable-rich sauces that also add antioxidants. Skip the cream, ground beef, butter, and cheese, and you’ll save saturated fat grams and cut calories. But the best way to make pasta more nutritious is through careful portion control; limit noodles to 1-cup servings, and go heavy on the (healthful) sauce. Start with these selections:
You can store uncooked dry pasta in a cool, dark cupboard for up to one year. Cooked pasta can be stored in an airtight container
Strands. This includes any kind of long, thin strand of pasta, including spaghetti, spaghettini, angel hair, capellini, and bucatini (a thick, spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running lengthwise through the center). It’s all the stuff you twirl around a fork. Heavier strand pastas, such as spaghetti or bucatini, are versatile, and can be served with almost any sauce. Thinner varieties, such as angel hair and capellini, are best with light, delicate sauces, or simply tossed with minced basil, diced tomatoes, and olive oil. Gluten-free selections are available, but they tend to be sticky and gummy in texture; spelt, a lower-gluten alternative to wheat, is a better choice.
Twirl these: Vita-Spelt Spaghetti; DeLallo Organic Capellini; Bionaturae Organic Gluten Free Spaghetti; Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole-Grain Spaghetti.
Ribbons. These are the long, flat cuts, such as lasagna, fettuccine, linguine, pappardelle, and tagliatelle. Because of their comparatively large surface area, they can handle heavier sauces without getting weighed down. Egg noodles, as the name implies, contain eggs, which add a richer flavor, color, and texture. They may be cut long or short, and are sometimes packaged in tightly compressed bundles. You’ll find gluten-free alternatives in the ribbon-pasta category, with a much smaller hit in terms of flavor and texture.
Drench these: Tinkyáda Brown Rice Lasagne; DeLallo Organic Linguine; Rustichella d’Abruzzo Organic Pappardelle Rigate; Montebello Organic Linguine; Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole-Grain Fettuccine.
Tubes. This broad category includes smooth tubes (such as mostaccioli), ridged ones (such as penne), twisted tubes (such as cavatappi), tiny elbows, jumbo manicotti, and many other varieties. Because they’re sturdier, tubular cuts are better candidates for gluten-free alternatives. They also hold up well to heavy, chunky sauces.
Smother these: Lundberg Organic Brown Rice Penne; DeBoles Organic Whole-Wheat Penne; Tinkyáda Brown Rice Elbows; Rustichella d’Abruzzo Organic Rigatoncini.
Shapes. These include fusilli (corkscrews), farfalle (bow ties), rotelle (wheels), and conchiglie (shells). Novelty or seasonal shapes such as pumpkins, leaves, turkeys, and others are also available in specialty stores and online. You’ll find gluten-free alternatives as well; because shapes are thicker than strands, rice pastas and other wheat-free selections have an appealing texture. They also hold sauce well, so they’re good candidates for thick, robust sauces.
Sauce these: DeBoles Gluten Free Rice Spirals; Ancient Harvest Organic Gluten Free Shells; Lundberg Organic Brown Rice Rotini; Tinkyáda Brown Rice Shells; Bionaturae Organic
Gluten Free Fusilli.
Stuffed. This category includes ravioli, tortellini, cappelletti, agnolotti, and mezzaluna—pasta that’s rolled flat, cut into shapes and filled with meat, cheese or vegetables. Gnocchi, though it’s typically made from riced potatoes, also falls into this category. With the exception of dried gnocchi, you’ll generally find stuffed pasta in the refrigerator or freezer section. Gluten-free varieties are sadly hard to find, but look for gluten-free gnocchi in the freezer section.
Stuff these: Caesar’s Pasta Gluten-free Spinach and Potato Gnocchi; Putney Pasta Whole-Wheat Spinach & Cheese Ravioli.
Fragrant, premade sauces make a dish of noodles a memorable meal, with mínimo work. Try one of these saucy selections: