In its basic form, dry American pasta consists of durum wheat flour (semolina) and water. Spinach, tomato, or other ingredients add flavor and texture. Include eggs, and the mixture becomes noodles. New versions combine whole grains for taste, nutrients, and fiber.
The Shape of Things
Most pasta shapes fall into one of three categories: long and thin, short and chunky, or broad and long. Skinny angel hair pasta works well with thin sauces such as lemon-butter or olive oil. Short, chunky penne or shells and broad shapes such as fettuccini or linguine hold up well with thicker sauces, say, a marinara with mushrooms and dried tomatoes.
The key is water, and plenty of it. If prepared with an inadequate amount, pasta cooks unevenly and becomes gummy. Use four to six quarts of water for every pound of pasta. If unsure, err on the side of too much water.
Stir in about 1⁄2 to 1 tablespoon of salt per pound of pasta to the boiling water before adding the noodles. Adding oil keeps them from sticking together, but also keeps flavorful sauces from sticking.
Don’t overcook pasta. Boil it until al dente, about 5 to 12 minutes depending on the shape and package directions. The pasta should feel tender, but have a slight resistance or chew. Drain, but don’t rinse unless preparing a cold pasta salad.
When selecting seafood to pair with pasta, use what’s freshest at the market. Keep in mind that thin, tender fish, such as sole, may not hold up when tossed with noodles. In such cases, serve fillets whole on top of the noodles and sauce.
Prepare seafood properly. If overcooked, fillets fall apart and shrimp become rubbery. Follow this general guide: 10 minutes per inch of thickness for fish, three to eight minutes for mussels and clams, and two to four minutes for shrimp and scallops.