Pasta 101

I’ve mentioned that I cook plenty of pasta and often.
Everyone is happy & satisfied when I cook pasta.
So I thought I would share some of the tips, techniques & recipes I’ve learned through the years.
Not all pasta is created equal.
Pasta barilla{picture compliments of Barilla}
Pasta can vary in texture, flavor & even color.
I’m partial to Barilla pasta although Dececco I undertsand is also a contender, but I don’t find the quality warrants the price point.
I don’t work for barilla.  I never worked for barilla.  I don’t plan to work for barilla. AND I don’t know anyone who has ever worked for barilla.
I just like the texture and flavor of barilla.
It cooks up al dente {to the tooth in italian} every single time, meaning it’s firm & springy to the bite.  Mushy {overcooked} pasta is not a good thing. Never. Ever.
With Barilla pasta cook it 1 minute less than the box indicates & you will have perfectly cooked al dente pasta every time.   I found the few times I cooked with Dececco that even the time on the box produced a too firm pasta.
Pasta salt oil
No matter what pasta you use you should always add salt & olive oil to the water before you add the pasta.  Let the water reach a roaring boil, add a healthy pinch of salt and about a tablespoon of oil for about a pound of pasta, and then add the pasta.  The salt adds depth of flavor while the oil keeps the pasta from sticking together.
Pasta pentola{picture compliments of William Sonoma}
I also highly recommend using a pasta pentola if you cook pasta regularly.  this is the one I own which has a 7qt. capacity but there are a range of styles & sizes on the market.  I usually cook a pound of pasta for our family of four but I can cook anywhere from a 1/2 lb. to 2 lbs. comfortably in this pot.
When the pasta is done I can simple lift up the insert, draining it into the bottom pot & lean the strainer portion on the bottom while I serve or mix the pasta into the sauce.  There’s no heavy lifting the hot water to the sink to let it drain, etc.  Also it saves the hot pasta water if you need it to mix into the sauce {many recipes call for this} or to thin out a sauce or to add a bottom layer to the pasta bowl, etc.  You can also refresh the cooked pasta left in the strainer {for second servings for example} by simply dunking the strainer back into the hot pasta water.  Do NOT leave the cooked pasta sitting in the hot water to keep it warm because it will continue to cook.  Remember what I said about mushy pasta?
i can’t say enough about this pot.  it’s so worth the investment.  trust me.
Pasta fork
i also recommend a pasta fork for stirring the pasta & serving it.  i don’t believe in having a cooking tool for every specific job in the kitchen, since the market place is saturated with different, specific tools nowadays, but this is so much better than a slotted spoon or regular utensil fork when it comes to pasta.
Pasta shrimp penne
this is a penne shrimp pasta with fresh mozzarella, tomato & basil.
I created this recipe when I first married Mr. Masterpiece based on all the things we liked.
{I share the recipe at the end of this post}.
Penne is Mr. M’s favorite shape of pasta so as a newly wed, who was learning to cook, I made all the pasta dishes with penne…..but I’ve learned through the years that different shaped pasta serves different purposes.
Pasta pesto
For example, I like using rotini | fussili for my pesto, because all the crooks&crannies catch the delicate herb sauce.
I’m partial to a very basic & traditional pesto sauce {alla Genovese} with Italian basil & pine (pignoli) nuts.  This is one of those recipes that uses the pasta water.
You can google a gazillion recipes on line to find your preference.
Pasta pesto closeup
I love using the basil from my garden for a quick & easy pesto.
It’s super fresh & fast.  Just be careful because the air causes the basil to oxidize so it turns from a beautiful bright green to an unappetizing dark color.  I would not recommend it as a make ahead dish unless you’ve mastered the tricks with lemon juice or blanching or freezing…
Once again you can google all these tricks.  I simply prefer to make it right before we eat it and I only make enough for that day.  I’ve tried some of the tricks myself but the results are never as tasty & vibrant as freshly made.
Also you can take it from a side dish to a main by simply adding grilled chicken or shrimp.
Pasta chicken meatballs giada
  Another favorite of mine is a Giada’s recipe, chicken meatball orichette.
It’s the only time I get away with using this shape pasta, ‘cuz i tell Mr. M that that’s the way Giada does it.  lol.
This is super yummy but it does involve a bit of work.  The ground chicken is hard to work with and i recommend wetting your hands with cold water frequently while rolling the meatballs to minimize the stickiness of the ground chicken.  Worth the effort in my opinion.  Like I said super yummy.  The chicken meat provides a richness that I can’t describe; you just have to taste it.
Pasta salad
For cold pasta salads I prefer this shape that barilla calls Cellentani.
This is what I use for my basic American macaroni salad as well since I find it much prettier than basic elbows.  I believe food should be as pretty to look at as it is tasty to eat.
Pasta salad closeup
For this particular pasta salad I used cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, salami, roasted red peppers, marinated mushrooms and arugula.  I tossed it all with extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt & pepper.
Sometimes I use canned tuna or chicken with tomatoes & red onion or whatever I have handy.  This makes for a great, light lunch, using whatever you have on hand.
I serve it in a bowl on a bed of lettuce.  I dress the lettuce with salt & pepper and a drizzle of EVOO & red wine vinegar before I add a scoop of the salad on top to add layers of flavor.
Pasta shrimp penne 3
Now to that shrimp penne pasta recipe I promised you.
This is always a crowd pleaser and seldom do people not have seconds of this.
Here I’m serving it family style since we had a group of us & that’s how I like to serve pasta when I have guests.  This way everyone can keep helping themselves to as much as they want.  When I just cook for our family of four I serve the individual bowls at the stove.  It’s just less things to clean this way.
Pasta shrimp penne 2
With any recipe I always recommend to read it twice before you start anything.  then before you start cooking always prep all your ingredients so you have everything on hand.  cooking is so much more fun and less stressful this way.


1 lb. penne pasta
olive oil
3-6 garlic cloves minced (depending on how much you like garlic)
12-16 oz. clean, deveined medium shrimp (I make about 8-10 per person)
2 lbs chopped plum tomatoes
8-12 oz. fresh mozzarella cherry ball sized cut in 1/2
handful fresh basil, julienned
salt, pepper, red pepper flakes to taste
Since this is my own recipe I give ranges for certain ingredients.  I really feel my way based on what I have on hand, etc. and I want you to adapt it to how your family eats.
Start boiling the water for the pasta.
Saute the garlic in the olive oil & add the shrimp.  Season with salt, pepper & red pepper flakes.
Cook first side about 3 minutes then turn and cook until fully opaque.
Set shrimp aside, keeping warm.  I just put them in a bowl with a top to hold the heat in.
Add the tomatoes to the hot pot and season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste, depending on how spicy you want it.  Cook until tomatoes start to break down.
Add the shrimp to the tomatoes. Stir together.  Add mozzarella and stir.  When you see the mozzarella starts, starts! to melt turn the eat off.
Taste the sauce before serving to make sure it doesn’t need extra seasoning.  I actually recommend tasting it every step so you know how much of each spice to add or not add.
Whenever the pasta water boiled and you added the oil & salt cook your penne.  Mine takes 10 minutes so I can usually time it so it’s all ready about the same time.
Pasta shrimp penne 4
You can then serve it garnished with basil.
I use some of my pasta water at the bottom of the platter or bowls to make sure there’s plenty of moisture.
Any pasta I make with seafood I don’t use Parmesan cheese nor do I recommend it.  The sharpness of the cheese competes with the flavor of seafood.
Pasta parmesean
BUT when you do use Parmesan I recommend using the best you can afford.  It makes a huge difference.  Also I buy a chunk & we grate it right on the pasta.  The flavor is so much fresher and better than pre-grated cheese.  I also use the rind for my basic red Italian sauce.
Pasta sauce can
I’ll share my red sauce recipe {which I’ve never shared with anyone btw} in a subsequent post.
So this is my pasta 101 if you will.
There’s a lot of information here and I only touched on shaped pastas.
I plan to posts about long pastas, stuffed pastas, baked pastas, pasta soups, the list goes on & on… in the upcoming months.  See what happens when you marry into an Italian family?
Pasta 101
I’m just a little gal from Uruguay who ate way more potatoes & rice growing up than pasta.
BUT my grandma did make the best gnocchi & she taught me how to make them so I’ll share that in the future as well.
Pasta shrimp penne 5
bon appetite!    buen provecho!    buono appetito!
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  1. Jann Olson says:

    Great tips about pasta! I was happy to learn that I am doing things right. 🙂 I too like the texture of Barilla and I have a yummy recipe that I use the penne. I can’t wait to try this shrimp recipe! Thanks for sharing with SYC.

  2. Suzanne says:

    This all looks amazing! I need to give it a try! Thanks so much for sharing on The Painted Drawer link party! My daughter can’ wait for me to make the shrimp dish 🙂

  3. Hi Mary Jo! Wanted to let you know that the Weekly Feature Series is live for one more chance for you to shine. Here is the link so you can check out your feature. Have a lovely Sunday! Toodles, Kathryn @TheDedicatedHouse

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