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Perfecting Your Pasta

October is National Pasta Month, and no one knows pasta like Michael Chiarello. Chiarello is a native of Northern Italy, owner and head chef of Bottega Restaurant in Napa Valley and a recent finalist for Top Chef Masters on Bravo.

Chiarello shared on "The Early Show" how to boil pasta perfectly, a few of his favorite sauces, and how to match the perfect pasta with the perfect sauce.

Chiarello likes to cook up his pasta "al dente". What does that mean? Literally it means in Italian, "to the tooth." It implies that the pasta is not cooked all the way through, but rather has a bit of a bite to it. Overcooked pasta is soft and soggy, and undercooked pasta is uncomfortably crunchy.

Pasta comes in a tongue-twisting variety of shapes and sizes, from huge to tiny, skinny to fat, curvy to blocky. Why? Because pasta sauces also come in many varieties. The key to matching shape to sauce is in the shape itself. The basic principle? Like goes with like. Thin pastas, according to the National Pasta Association are best with thin sauces; the sauces slide easily over the smooth pasta surfaces. Hollow or twisty shapes, on the other hand, are great with chunkier sauces, because the saucy bits can nest inside or get caught in the ridges. And thick pastas go best with thick sauces.

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Some suggestions:
Corkscrews (fusilli, rotini, cavatappi). Fantastic with pesto sauces, tomato sauces, or meat sauces. Like the ridged pastas, the corkscrew shape "catches" and holds the sauce.

Hollow spaghetti (bucatini, perciatelli). These are essentially very long, thin straws. The classic sauce for these hearty pastas is all'amatriciana, a spicy sauce featuring tomato and pancetta (or bacon).

Spaghetti. The all-American favorite, spaghetti is perfect with tomato-based marinara and bolognese sauces. Coat the pasta with your favorite tomato sauce and let it sit for a few minutes before serving. Flattened forms of spaghetti - pappardelle, fettuccine, and linguine -- come a close second. Skinny spaghetti -- also known as capellini or angel-hair pasta -- does best with thinner sauces, such as puttanesca.

Macaroni. Though macaroni has a lowbrow image, this is perhaps the most versatile of pastas, good with sauces, baked in casseroles, or tossed with dressing and vegetables in pasta salads.

Stuffed pasta (ravioli, tortellini). Usually filled with cheese, meat, vegetables, or a combination thereof, in their best incarnations these are like little pillows. Stuffed pastas are usually served with a broth or cream sauce so the pasta fillings can stand out.

Quick Bolognese Sauce

Prep Time: 20 min Total Time: 51 min
Serves: 4

4 to 6 dried porcini mushrooms
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
8 ounces (1 cup) ground veal
4 ounces (1/2 cup) ground pork
Salt (preferably gray sea salt) and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup white wine
3/4 cup veal stock (or quality chicken stock)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup marinara sauce or tomato puree
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish

Soak the mushrooms: Place the porcini in warm water; soak for 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid, then chop the porcini. Start a large pot of salted water boiling for your pasta.

Saute the onions: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook gently to "sweat," about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and rosemary and cook for about a minute, or until the garlic is lightly browned.

Add the veal and pork: Stir in the meat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Cook 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms; cook for about 4 minutes to caramelize the meat. Meanwhile, boil the pasta.

Finish the sauce: Add the wine and 2 tablespoons porcini juice; cook for 1 minute to evaporate. Add the stock and parsley; cook for 2 minutes. Add the marinara and 1/4 cup pasta cooking water; simmer for 3 to 4 minutes. Toss with cooked pasta and the parmesan. Garnish with more cheese.

Blanched Basil Pesto
If your pesto typically turns army green shortly after you make it, you'll appreciate the beauty of this version. I blanch the basil briefly to set the color, and I add a pinch of powdered ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which keeps the pesto from oxidizing.

Serves: Yields: 1 Cup

3 cups lightly packed fresh basil
1 cup lightly packed Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup pure olive oil
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts, *see note
1 teaspoon minced garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon powdered ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Prepare a bowl of ice water. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Put the basil and parsley in a sieve and plunge it into the boiling water, pushing the leaves down into the water and stirring them so they blanch evenly. Blanch for 15 seconds, then plunge the herbs into the ice water to stop the cooking. Drain immediately, squeeze the herbs dry, and roughly chop.

In a blender, puree the herbs with the oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, pepper, and ascorbic acid. When well blended, add the cheese and whir briefly just to mix. Transfer to a bowl and adjust the seasoning. Store the pesto in a small, covered container in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks. Or freeze the pesto for as long as 1 month.

Basil Pesto Pasta with Tiny Potatoes and Broccoli
Pasta with pesto is a good lesson in why Italians so often insist on adding a spoonful of pasta cooking water to pasta sauce. Try it here and you will see how creamy the pesto becomes on the pasta.

Serves: Makes about 3/4 cup, enough for 1 pound pasta.

1 C. Basil Pesto
2 cups broccoli florets, small, cooked
3/4 pound marble-size potatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Gray salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 pound dried orecchiette or other pasta the same size as potatoes
About 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Put the potatoes in a pan of salted cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and let cool for a few minutes. If the potatoes are larger than about 1/2 inch in diameter, cut in half. Cook the broccoli in salted boiling water until tender, then drain and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a medium sauti pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the potatoes and cook until browned and crispy all over, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

While the potatoes are browning, bring a pot of water to a boil. Add salt and the pasta and cook until al dente, about 12 minutes. Drain through a colander, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Pour the pasta into a warm serving bowl, add the potatoes, broccoli, about 1 cup of the basil pesto, several twists of pepper, and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Toss well, thinning with the pasta cooking water as necessary.

For a Spaghettini recipe, go to Page 2.

Spaghettini Squared: Pasta with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Zucchini

Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 pound whole-wheat dried spaghettini
3/4 pound zucchini
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup Basil Oil, recipe follows
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus a small piece

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.
While the water comes to a boil and the pasta cooks, cut the zucchini with the fine French-fry cutter on a mandoline. If you do not have one, cut by hand into the longest, finest julienne you can manage. Season with salt and pepper. If your zucchini is very finely cut, it does not need to be cooked. Otherwise, place in a colander, suspend over the pasta pot, cover the pot, and steam the zucchini until still slightly crunchy, about 2 minutes.

Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add the garlic and saute briefly until light brown. Turn on the exhaust fan and add the red pepper flakes. Quickly mix in the basil and parsley and remove from the heat.

When the pasta is al dente, drain through a colander, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Pour the pasta into a warm serving bowl; add the zucchini, basil oil, the garlic mixture, and 1/2 cup of the cheese. Toss well, adding cooking water as needed to make a smooth sauce. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper, as needed. Grate about 2 tablespoons Parmesan over the top and serve at once.

Cook's Note: The reason to save the basil oil to toss with the pasta at the end is so the oil will have a fresh, uncooked taste.

Basil Oil (and other herb flavored oils):
For soft herbs, such as basil, parsley, cilantro or tarragon: Use 4 cups packed leaves to 2 cups pure olive oil.

For woody herbs, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano or lemon verbena: Use 1 cup packed leaves to 2 cups pure olive oil.

In a blender, puree the herbs and oil until completely smooth. Put the mixture in a saucepan and bring it to a simmer over moderate heat. Simmer for 45 seconds, then pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl. Don't press on the mixture, but you can tap the strainer against your hand to get the oil to drip through faster.

Immediately strain the oil again through a flat-bottomed paper filter. If the filter clogs, you may need to change the filter partway through. It's okay to pick the filter up and squeeze it gently to get the oil out faster, but be careful not to break the filter.

(Sometimes a little dark liquid comes through the filter first. Don't worry; that's water. It will settle to the bottom because it is heavier than the oil.)

Let the filtered oil settle for a few hours, then pour it off the dark liquid. Store in an airtight jar in a cool, dark place.

Cook's Notes: The oil passes through the filter faster if it's filtered while still hot, so set up your filter before you start the recipe. You'll need a flat-bottomed paper filter, like those used for some drip coffee machines. Cone-shaped filters tend to get clogged.

Yield: about 1 1/3 cups

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