Unlike Americans, many of whom were raised on squishy canned spaghetti, Italians insist that their pasta be cooked al dente, or “to the tooth,” a consistency at which it still retains some substance. It may be slightly firm at the center. The pasta is chewier this way (perhaps a little chewier than most Americans like it.) But this is a good thing. Not only does it give you something to sink your teeth into so that you enjoy the exquisite pleasure and sensation of eating something. But it’s also better for your health — and better for your weight.
Italians like to eat pasta, not pablum!
They believe that eating pasta al dente is healthier for the digestive system than squishy, overcooked mush that sits heavy in the abdomen and makes you feel sluggish. When pasta is overcooked, it means it has absorbed its maximum amount of liquid. Pasta cooked al dente, on the other hand, can still absorb more during the digestive process and therefore digests more easily.
Al dente pasta also has a lower glycemic index than overcooked pasta, so it has less of an impact on your blood sugar levels. High-quality pasta made of hard durum wheat semolina (the kind Italians like) and whole grain pastas have staying power. Their low glycemic indices mean that they give you a slow, steady supply of fuel while allowing your blood sugar levels to stay constant, which helps protect you from getting hungry between meals.
When I made pasta (with a little bit of extra virgin olive oil) a regular part of my diet, I lost the desire to snack between meals. I didn’t need to. I wasn’t hungry! It has become a cornerstone in helping me maintain my weight without having to put much effort into it. But how do you achieve that magical consistency known as al dente? It’s as simple as one-two-three!
First, you have to cook your pasta in plenty of water. Most Americans don’t use enough. Figure at least one quart of water for every quarter pound of pasta, or four quarts for a pound (the weight of a typical package of spaghetti.) All I can say is use a big pot with lots of water! This is important because you want the water to return to a boil as quickly as possible after you add your pasta, otherwise it takes forever to cook it and timing can become a problem.
Copious amounts of water also give the pasta plenty of room to move around and cook evenly. Plentiful water also prevents the separate pieces from sticking together. You also need a lot of water because the pasta is going to double in size by absorbing it as it cooks. Now for the salt. Don’t add it until after the water has started boiling. They say that if you add it before that, it could pit your cookware before it dissolves. How much salt should you use? I like what Sophia Loren says in one of her cookbooks. Use a “large pinch.” Too little leaves the pasta bland, but too much will overpower it.
I usually just pour some in my hand and take a nice pinch. You can always adjust it if it’s not right. After a while, you’ll just know. You’ll be like an Italian cook, who goes by instinct. How do you know when the pasta is done? You can follow directions on the package, but those are just approximations. You really have to taste it to know for sure. That doesn’t sound too bad!
Whatever you do, don’t go throwing a piece against the wall to see if it sticks. That’s pasta abuse! And fun as it sounds, that’s not the Italian way, because it’s not accurate. If your pasta sticks to the wall, you’re in trouble. It’s overdone. Here’s what I do. I boil a very large pot of water. I add the pasta and a little salt, then give it a swirl and set the timer according to directions on the package. But I always check before the timer goes off. The pasta should be just a little tougher than you like it, because it will continue to cook as it drains in a colander.
As for portions, in general, think of what I was told in Tuscany: nothing bigger than your fist. Typically Italians eat two, maybe three ounces of pasta as part of a meal that also includes vegetables and maybe a small amount of lean protein. And remember, go easy on the sauce. Think of it as dressing your pasta in a light summer wrap, rather than a heavy winter overcoat. A light drizzle of a thin sauce or one or two tablespoons of a chunky sauce is all you need. And even less for pesto.
A dab will do you!
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