Sunday, September 22, 2013

Cheap Food Factfile: Pasta

Price per kg (Basics pasta shapes) 78p per kg

Pasta is traditionally made with durum wheat and water, sometimes with egg or olive oil added for colour/texture. The first mention of pasta or a pasta like equivalent was written in 100BC by a Roman poet, Horace, speaking of a dough, made into thin sheets, deep fried and consumed. He called this “Lagana”, which developed later with layers of meat sauce, became one of the first pasta dishes, what we know of today as “Lasagne”. The popularity and consumption of different pasta dishes were made by the Romans and the Turkish- it is believed that the first record of dried pasta was in the 5th century, where the Turks would dry thin strips of pasta dough (would have been like Tagliatelli) to take on long journeys. Some of the first pasta dishes/recipes that we consume now were created in Sicily in the 12th century. By the 14th/15th century, pasta was regularly consumed, and was manufactured in large amounts, then dried for used on ships- as the dry pasta had a long shelf life for extended sea journeys. The first recipe for pasta with tomato sauce was written in 1790, and this has now become the national dish of Naples.

There are hundreds of different shapes, sizes and varieties of pasta- each one is given an Italian/Latinate name, often connected to the shape of the pasta (for instance, “Stellini” is a small star shaped pasta, with “Stella” being Latin for star). Pasta is usually a light brown colour, being darker if wholemeal- however, pasta can be coloured, with squid ink (black), spinach (green) and beetroot (red/pink) if desired. Pasta can be generally classed into four different categories:

Long pasta- Long strands of pasta, such as spaghetti, linguini and Tagliatelli.

Short pasta- small pasta in various shapes, popular varieties in this country include penne (small diagonally cut tubes of pasta) fusilli (“corkscrew” shaped pasta) and farfalle (“bow tie” pasta).

 Soup Pasta- very small pasta shapes, often used to add substance to vegetable soups, such as minestrone. Varieties include Stellini (mini star shaped pasta), Annelini (small circles of pasta- like the type you get in your minestrone CupaSoup!) and Risi (small rice shaped pasta).

Pasta al Forno pastas- sheets of pasta, used for ravioli/tortellini and for baked dishes, such as lasagne or cannelloni.

Health Benefits
Pasta is a good low calorie/low fat source of carbohydrates, a nutrient needed for energy expenditure. Whole-wheat pasta is also a good source of several nutrients, including protein, Thiamine, Niacin, Magnesium, Phosphorous, Manganese, and Selenium. Pasta is low on the Glycaemic Index, meaning that when consumed the energy is released slowly, unlike white bread or sugary foods, which cause spikes in insulin release, causing brief moments of energy, followed by lethargy. The “Mediterranean Diet”- a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, lean meats, olive oil, and pasta, has shown many health benefits, such as lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, weight loss, and the reduction of risk for numerous cancers (particularly colon/bowel cancer).

Nutritional Information  (per 100g dry, based on wholemeal spaghetti)
Calories- 348kcals
Carbohydrates- 75g
Protein- 15g
Thiamine- 0.5mg (33% RDA)
Niacin- 5.1mg (26% RDA)
Magnesium- 143mg (36% RDA)
Manganese- 3.1mg (153% RDA!!)
Selenium-73mcg (104%)

The biggest global producer of pasta is (of course!) Italy, producing over 3,000,000 tonnes of the stuff!  The two other biggest producers are the USA, and Brazil. Interestingly, the biggest consumers of pasta are Italy, Venezuela and Tunisia.

 Interesting Pasta Facts
It is estimated that on average an Italian person eats over sixty pounds of pasta a year, it is loved so much in the country, that individual consumption over-reaches the amount of wheat produced by the country, so Italy often has to import wheat from other countries to make enough pasta.

Recently, there has been a large number of Italian immigrants settling in South Africa, making spaghetti with meatballs a traditional and very popularly consumed dish in this country.

Ways we like them
“Traditional Pasta” is eaten all over the Mediterranean,  the USA and South America. In Asia, noodles (similar to pasta) is also consumed in large quantities. In Africa, couscous (Made with the same ingredients as pasta, but the dough is not rolled out and processed like pasta- it is like very small “grains” of pasta) is consumed readily, often with spiced meat stews (known as tagines).

Fresh egg Tagliatelli is popularly consumed as a side dish to meat dishes in the south of france/ north of Italy. There is pasta served with fresh tomato sauce, such as napolitana (tomato and basil) and Puttanesca (tomato, chilli, olives, capers and anchovies). There is pasta served in creamy sauces- fettucini alfredo, or carbonara (Italian  bacon, egg, cheese and cream). Rich meat sauces/ ragus are popular, particularly “Spaghetti Bolognese”-  a very popular dish in Britain, it being a slowly simmered beef and tomato sauce.

There is Lasagne, a dish with layers of beef ragu, white sauce, pasta sheets and cheese, baked in the oven. Canneloni is stuffed with a ricotta and spinach mixture, topped with a tomato sauce and baked. Macaroni Cheese (or Mac’N’Cheese like our eloquent American friends call it) is exactly what it says on the tin- cooked macaroni in a cheese sauce.

Pasta “Vongole” is a pasta dish with fresh clams, sometimes fresh mussels, in a wine/tomato/herb sauce. In Italy, pasta is often consumed very simply, with good olive oil, butter, parmesan. Another simple dish is pasta with pasta with olive oil, chilli and garlic.

Pasta is one of my favourite ingredients of all time- I must eat it at least 2 times a week. My favourites include some of the dishes mentioned above actually- I love lasagne, my favourite not actually being the traditional beef/white sauce combo- I think the nicest lasagne I’ve even made was with turkey, mushroom and pesto. Spaghetti with tomato and olive sauce, with plenty of parmesan on top, has to be one of my top ten favourite foods. I like buying the ready-made tortellini/raviolis in the supermarkets, and they are often so cheap! The ones filled with butternut squash, or with mushrooms are my faves. Spaghetti Bolognese is one of the lushest traditional dishes ever- when the ragu is simmered for hours, with loads of garlic, some red wine, fresh herbs, and a splash of Worcestershire sauce, it is just wonderful. However, this country does ruin the Bolognese a little bit- the stuff you get in tins and jars are only just vaguely edible. In terms of creamy sauces, to be honest a lot of the time they are a little too rich for me- although my creamy blue cheese and spinach farfalle recipe is pretty comforting. You will see from my blog, I cook with pasta regularly, and you can find some delicious cheap dishes here at Chef Mel’s Kitchen! My cupboards would be lost without pasta!

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