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Pasta Perfection

Pasta mishaps are easy to avoid with a few simple precautions and attention to instructions

There are many types of pasta and that means varying cooking times. Regardless of shortness or length of time that pasta should be in the boiling water, a cook should never leave pasta alone. Stand nearby, at the ready to check for doneness - and to prevent disaster. According to some experts, this is the most important of all tips.

Another important step toward perfect pasta is to not overcook. True Italian cooks always prepare their pastas al dente; that is, firm, but done. If you can bite into a piece and see just one tiny white speck in the thickest part, it is not ready. It should be tender on the outside and firm at the core.

You may not necessarily improve the taste of pasta by making it at home. In fact, a high quality pasta (100% semolina) can be just as good - and a lot easier - if cooked correctly.

We have all heard that adding oil to the cooking water keeps pasta from sticking. This is a big no-no with Italians, especially if high-quality pasta is used. The oil coats the pasta, which means sauce will not adhere as it should. Salt is allowed, but we never use it.

Use plenty of water for boiling, but not too much. A bit of a contradiction, but a general rule here is about 5 quarts of water per pound of pasta. Many cooks prefer to dip pasta out of the water with a slotted spoon. This allows some water to remain and will help the sauces pool on the plate.

Do not rinse pasta for hot dishes as this will remove the starch, which aids in sauce adhesion. If you are preparing a cold pasta salad, however, you may wish to give it a good rinse.

Remember, too, that pasta continues to cook after it has been removed from the water. Take this into account when preparing casseroles for oven baking.

While most cooks will be adamant about cooking pasta just before serving, that is not always possible. If you must let it sit, keep it warm in a metal colander over a softly boiling pot of water. If it begins to stick, you may be forced to add a small amount of margarine.

For authentic pasta and sauce dishes, the ingredients should be tossed together before serving. Never ladle a sauce on top of spaghetti and let it sit. Mix in a small amount of parmesan and then sprinkle a bit more on top.

Lasagna or other pasta-based casserole dishes are easy to make ahead of time and freeze. Place them in an appropriately-sized aluminum pan, uncooked, and freeze. Allow to thaw in the refrigerator or set directly in oven and cook at least half an hour longer than normal. Leftovers can also be frozen and thawed successfully.

And one last kid tip: If you want to avoid slurping at the table, crack spaghetti into thirds or fourths and then place in the water. It will be easier, and less messy, for younger ones (and the elderly) to handle.

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