Pasta: health food Italian style

Pasta: health food Italian style – includes article on homemade pasta

Evelyn Zamula

Sophia Loren once confessed to an interviewer that she had always loved pasta and ate it “by the ton.” Most women would eat tons, too, if they could end up with a figure like Sophia’s, but they don’t and won’t because they think pasta’s fattening.

Well, relax, ladies. Nutritionists say that pasta is not as bad as you might think. Two ounces of dry pasta–which cook up to about a cupful–contain about 210 calories. Just like a baked potato, it’s not the pasta that’s fattening, but the stuff one slathers over it that makes the calories count jump. Pasta can hold its own in the nutrition department, too.

No one knows who invented pasta, but it is mentioned in Chinese writings from about 5000 B.C. Marco Polo used to get the credit for introducing pasta to Italy, but that legend was laid to rest when scholars unearthed an Italian cookbook with pasta recipes published around 1290–at least five years before Marco returned from his wanderings through Asia. Now experts believe that Indians, Arabs or Mongols introduced pasta to Italy as early as the 11th century, though some think the Etruscans were using it in pre-roman days.

Though there’s no historical documentation, it’s not too hard to imagine how pasta was invented. Somewhere, someone must have accidentally or experimentally dropped a blob of paste made from flour and water into a pot of boiling water and, after tasting it, decided it was worth doing again. (The German form of pasta, spaetzle, is an unshaped pasta made by approximately this method.) In time, people figured out just how much water should be added to flour to produce a smooth, pliable dough that could be rolled into thin sheets and cut into different shapes.

No matter who invented it or how it was introduced, pasta became identified with Italians. Though only rich people could afford pasta in Renaissance Italy, by the 17th century it had become a staple food of the common people. Besides adding a little variety to a basically boring diet, pasta kept well when properly dried, another virtue in a time when food preservation was primitive.

Italians take pasta seriously. When the ruling Spaniards imposed a tax on flour in 1647, it’s said that the citizens on Bari rose up in rebellious outrage. Italians also shaped pasta into hundreds of forms and named them imaginatively. One shape–tagliatelle–was named after the flaxen hair of Lucrezia Borgia, the famed 16th century beauty who reputedly got rid of her enemies by poisoning them. As befits such an important foodstuff, the Italians have established a spaghetti museum near Genoa that displays modern and ancient machines for making pasta, as well as documents going back to the 13th century that regulated the quality of pasta.

The Italians who immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries mostly came from southern Italy, when as now a much poorer area than the industrial North. The cuisine they brought with them was lacking in meat and other expensive high-protein foods, but was rich in tomato sauces, garlic, olive oil, vegetable dishes, legumes, pizza and their beloved pasta, usually made at home.

Commercial pasta didn’t become popular here until after the turn of the century because made-in-America pasta wasn’t very good. What improved the quality–and the popularity–was the introduction of Russian durum wheat to the United States by cereal expert Mark Carleton. Carleton had been sent by the Department of Agriculture to Russia and Siberia in 1898 to scout out different varieties of rust-free wheat. Carleton’s trip was a success; the durum strain he brought back to America paved the way for popular commercial pasta. Today Americans eat 2 billion pounds of pasta a year, about 10 pounds per person annually. (Italians eat six to 10 times that amount per person.)

Though a variety of flours may be used, the best commercial pasta flour is still made from this hard durum wheat, now grown mainly in a small triangular area of 12 North Dakota counties and Canada. It is milled into semolina, a granular substance amber in color and about as fine as sugar. The semolina is mixed with water and kneaded by machine into a smooth and elastic dough. The mixture is then forced through dies that determine the shape of the pasta.

When the dough is extruded in solid rods, it is spaghetti, or linguini, or any of the other forms of pasta that are not hollow. When a steel pin is placed in the center of each hole in the die, the dough comes out in hollow rods, known as macaroni. For short macaroni, a revolving knife attached to the die cuts the dough at frequent intervals. a modern pasta machine can make 1,500 pounds of pasta an hour.

After shaping and cutting, long strands of macaroni and spaghetti are draped over racks and taken to ovens, not to be baked, but to be slowly dried in the presence of filtered, constantly circulating air. Elbow macaroni, shells and other short-length macaroni are collected on trays or drawers and placed in drying cabinets. The drying operation is the crucial part of the process. If not dried quickly enough, the pasta may sour. If dried too fast, the pasta becomes brittle and breaks easily.

Egg noodles get a different treatment. Instead of being extruded through dies, the dough is pressed through rollers in him sheets and cut into various widths.

Pasta has become fashionable in the last few years. A new wrinkle in specialty food stores is making fresh pasta to order, sometimes right before the customer’s eyes. While perhaps not as much fun as watching pizza dough being twirled, seeing noodles made can be peculiarly satisfying. The sheets of dough are hand-fed through bladed rollers that cut them to the desired width. To keep the noodles from sticking to each other, sometimes they’re dusted with cornmeal after emerging from the rollers. They can be cooked immediately or kept in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for a few days, or in the freezer for months.

The Food and Drug Administration has no jurisdiction over locally made and sold pasta, but when it’s transported in interstate commerce, pasta is subject to FDA’s regulations, including standards of indentity. These are “master” recipes that state what certain food products must contain and what they may contain to conform to the law. They have been established over the years to guarantee the consumer a pure and consistent product.

Macaroni products–FDA’s term for pasta–have simple standards of identity, because they’re simple foods. Flour (usually durum flour, semolina, farina, or any combination of them) and water are the chief ingredients. Manufacturers may, but usually don’t, add certain optional ingredients, including salt, egg whites, onions, celery, garlic or bay leaf.

Noodles follow the same general recipe, but what makes a noodle different from macaroni is the addition of eggs, either in the form of fresh, frozen or dried whole eggs or yolks only.

Pasta can be attractively colored, too. Those increasingly popular red, green and yellow macaroni and noodle products may contain spinach, artichokes, parsley, tomatoes, beets or carrots. FDA permits the addition of a minimum of 3 percent vegetable solids, which may be fresh, canned, dried or in the form of a puree or paste. These small amounts of vegetable solids make pasta pretty but don’t add much to the nutritional content.

Not all pasta is enriched, but that which is provides generous amounts of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and iron. Two ounces of macaroni also provide about 10 percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (U.S. RDA) of protein. Pastas made from whole-wheat, buckwheat and wheat-soy flours, sold mostly in health food stores, contain even more protein, though with differences in taste and texture that don’t please all pasta lovers. There are also “high-protein” pasta, relatively new on the market, that contain about double the amount of protein of regular pasta because manufacturers and protein-rich-ingredients such as wheat germ or yeast. One particular brand of pasta has enough protein in it to meet USDA requirements as a meat substitute in the federal school lunch program.

Pasta is also rich in complex carbohydrates (starch), and it’s easily digested. That’s the reason it’s so popular with athletes in their pre-competition diets.

And it’s low in sodium, fat and cholesterol, though noodles contain a bit more fat and cholesterol because of the eggs. A recent study has shown that southern Italians, who still eat more pasta than northern Italians, have lower blood cholesterol levels and less coronary disease than their compatriots. A plate of pasta with a plain tomato sauce or a simple “primavera” sauce made of fresh vegetables–minus the heavy cream–contains fewer calories than a steak. Just avoid the rich sauces.

Pasta is healthy, easy to prepare, and tasty. So don’t eat your hearts out, ladies. Eat pasta and be like Sophia.

COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group