PastaWhen you eat out at the finest Italian restaurants, one of the first things you notice is that the pasta is perfect, like Baby Bear’s porridge.

It isn’t too soft or too hard; the shape of the pasta holds the sauce the way it is supposed to do; there are no sticky lumpy bits; and the variety of the pasta complements the dish.

When you cook pasta at home, there are a bewildering number of decisions to be made. Should you use linguini or rigatoni? White, green or red pasta? And what’s the difference between semolina and durum?

First of all, you should know that perfect pasta starts with the flour. Good strong flour makes the best pasta, and the strongest flour is semolina, which is milled from Durum wheat (see, they are the same thing). The next best thing is baker’s bread flour with its high gluten content. This is what causes a loaf to hold its shape. Softer flour will mean mushy pasta. So whether you buy your pasta or want to make your own, make sure it’s made with the right flour.

Basic pasta is flour and water, kneaded together and made into the familiar pasta shapes you see on the shelves. Some varieties of pasta have egg added to the basic mix and are labeled al’uovo. Flavored pastas have extra ingredients to add the desired color and taste.

Pasta simply means `dough’ in Italian. Pasta is also known as noodles, and it is believed that adventurer Marco Polo first introduced pasta to Italy from his travels in China. But the basic mixing of flour and water into useful dough goes back centuries in almost every culture. What the Italians have added is the variety and ingenuity of pasta shapes.

Commercial pasta is turned into different shapes when it is extruded through pasta making machines. The machines have holes of different shapes and sizes that determine the end product. When you are making your own pasta, you can buy small pasta machines that will give you different shapes, or you can laboriously shape them by hand – you can even invent your own. How about shaping the pasta into fish, hearts or even beer bottles? The different shapes well made pasta can take on are limited only by the imagination.

Pasta can be dried, or used fresh. This is where the right flour is particularly crucial – soft flour will break up when it is being cooked. The best way to cook pasta, fresh or dried, is in lots of boiling water. You can add a pinch of salt and a drop of olive oil, which will help keep the pasta separated as it cooks.

But out of the bewildering variety available, which pasta should you choose for which sauce? Pasta comes in four main types; flat noodles, such as fettuccine, linguini and lasagna; tubes, such as cannelloni and macaroni; fancy shapes, such as farfalle (which actually means butterflies, not bowties) and fusilli (spirals); and `soup’ pasta, such as risoni.

Flat noodles go best with thick or creamy sauces that will cling to each strip. Most diners are familiar with the thick beefy sauce that accompanies spaghetti noodles. When you dig in the fork and twirl the noodles the sauce coats the pasta and you get a generous mouthful of both. Lasagna pasta is coated on both sides with the sauces that are interlaid with it in the dish.

Tubes can be very large, as in Cannelloni, or small, as in macaroni, but they all have one thing in common – they have a cavity that needs to be filled. Cannelloni can take a hearty filling, such as spinach and ricotta, while smaller tubes need a more liquid filling, so that some of the sauce can run inside the pasta tubes.

Speciality shapes are all generally designed to hold pools of pasta sauce and help the sauce cling to the pasta. Deep shapes like lumaconi (snail shells) have `cups’, and work better with thicker sauces that fill them up, while other shapes like fusilli (spirals) need a good coating sauce that clings to the curves.

Soup pastas are small bits of pasta that can be added to soups or stews. These include risoni, small pasta shaped like grains of rice; ditaloni (thimbles) shaped like small cups; and stellini (stars). These need no pre-cooking, they can be simply added to the soup during the cooking process.

Flavored pastas take their colour and flavor from a single added ingredient. Green pasta is made by adding cooked and blendered spinach to the dough. This may be a good way to sneak Popeye’s favorite source of iron into the kids. Green pasta goes will with most pasta dishes, and can be cooked with white or yellow pasta to make the traditional dish paglia e fieno (straw and hay).

Red or tomato pasta is made by adding tomato paste to the dough. This goes well with meat or tomato based dishes. When beetroot is used instead of tomato paste, it gives the red a more purple hue and a stronger flavor.

Black pasta is made with squid ink, and goes well with marinas (seafood pastas). Brown pasta is made with chestnut flour, and can be served with mushroom based sauces.

One new variety that is definitely an acquired taste is chocolate pasta, made by adding cocoa powder to the dough. There are no recommendations with this – except that it probably won’t go well with fish.

Finally, if you do want to try making your own, and you have the right flour, it really couldn’t be simpler. It just takes a bit of time. Use a cool work surface such as a marble board on countertop, and tip out one pound of flour into a mound. Make a well in the center, drop in four eggs and a pinch of salt and work them well together until you have a firm dough. Knead it with your hands for about ten minutes, then roll it out flat to cut into noodles, fill with cheese for ravioli, or shape by hand. You could also just put through a pasta machine (you can get one that will make the dough first.)

But whether you buy or make your own, just remember this precept and you can’t go wrong. The perfect pasta is like the perfect woman – strong, shapely and well dressed!