On a traditional Italian dinner table, pasta is often served as the “primo” or first course whereas on most American dinner tables, it is enjoyed as the main meal. In both cases, when served right, pasta is delicious, nutritious and perhaps one of the quickest meals to prepare.

On a traditional Italian dinner table, pasta is often served as the “primo” or first course whereas on most American dinner tables, it is enjoyed as the main meal. In both cases, when served right, pasta is delicious, nutritious and perhaps one of the quickest meals to prepare.

Most low-carb diet authorities suggest that pasta is a food that is bad for you. Other schools of thought strongly disagree and use the healthy Mediterranean diet as a reference to back up their arguments. Whether you agree with the authorities mentioned above or not, I can tell you that as a chef, caterer and culinary instructor, it is my responsibility to arm you with all the knowledge you need to make conscious and educated culinary decisions.

Pasta is a comfort food and certainly a favorite dinner that Americans love to eat. One reason for this could be because it triggers the release of endorphins responsible for happy mood swings. Although it is not known for sure, this could be the brain’s way of showing gratitude for providing it with the much-needed fuel for its daily functions. 

It is these endorphin triggers that have caused nutritionists across the globe to research and agree that different carbohydrates metabolize at different rates. The speed at which a carbohydrate is converted into glucose or sugar is referred to as the glycemic index (GI). The higher the GI index, the faster the food is absorbed in the blood stream. Carbohydrates with a high GI are found in mostly refined foods such as cake, white bread, white rice and white pasta that is made from all-purpose flour. 

These refined foods are what cause the blood sugar levels to spike, creating short bursts of energy, which is also known as sugar rushes. Such sugar rushes die very quickly, leaving behind low energy levels and dreaded mood swings. I am sure many of us have either experienced these types of mood swings personally or witnessed our children going through them. The mood swings can be easily avoided if you limit the intake of high glycemic index foods. 

One way to help keep the GI lowered is by using durum wheat or hard wheat, from which Mediterranean pasta is made. It is natural and, therefore, retains its bran, which is where most of the fiber is. It is this bran that makes any whole grain pasta digest much slower, therefore lowering the GI to only 41, which is a good GI. A good guide to keep in mind is anything that measures higher than 60 is considered a high GI. I am not claiming to be a nutritionist or a medical doctor, but when it comes to pasta, whether you opt to make your own fresh noodles from scratch or use store-bought dry ones, I know that whole grain pasta cooked “al dente” is the healthier alternative.  
 
In order to successfully prepare a delicious pasta dish you would need to cook the pasta “al dente,” which basically means to make sure the pasta is cooked firm but not hard. When the noodles are overcooked, it results in mushy pasta, creating a much higher GI, which is far worse for your body. When preparing the pasta, keep in mind that typically thin pasta such as spaghetti or linguini reaches the “al dente” stage in just under eight minutes when cooked in salted boiling water. However, the thicker or bolder the noodles are, such as rigatoni or fettuccine, the longer they take to cook.

When I cook pasta, unlike many of my colleagues, I never add oil to the boiling water. To me the only purpose of adding oil to the boiling water is to reduce its surface tension and prevent it from spilling over. My trick is once I add the noodles to the pot, I give them a quick stir, then as soon as they are boiling again, I cover the pot with a lid, turn the heat off and allow the noodles to sit for eight minutes. This method saves not only energy but olive oil as well.

The next component to a delicious pasta dish is the sauce. In fact, pasta is so versatile that almost any sauce is a perfect match. A few exceptions that I can think of would be a veal stock and wine reductions also known as demi-glace. The most common sauces served in restaurants and in homes are marinara, butter, pesto, cheese, cream, velouté, (butter and flour blended with stock), or a combination such as pesto cream or tomato butter.

The traditional Italian cook usually refers to pasta sauce as a “condimento” or condiment. This clearly suggests that there should be a harmony and a balance between noodles and sauce. The thinner the noodle, the more delicate the sauce should be. Bold pasta such as penne, rigatoni or orecchiette can stand up to more rustic sauces such as ragouts.

I have attempted to shed some light on the controversy of whether pasta is good or bad for you by showing you some of the reasons why pasta can or cannot be a healthy alternative for your dinner table. After all, we are what we eat; a plateful of whole grain pasta tossed with seasonal vegetables, lean protein, olive oil and fresh garlic spells to me the ultimate healthy necessities of fiber, vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Eating healthy nowadays is perhaps the best guarantee of a preventative health plan that works. The choice is yours to make, but keep in mind the options are limitless, and just by changing how long you cook your pasta will be a change in the right direction. Below I have created some mouth-watering recipes that will please the fussiest of palates.

Chef Fehmi’s Spring Shrimp Spaghetti

1 pound of medium-sized shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cups baby spinach thoroughly washed and dried
1 bunch watercress
1 cup of grape tomatoes halved
3 cloves of garlic minced
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
6 basil leaves, roughly chopped
3 cups of cooked spaghetti “al dente”
1 cup of chicken stock
juice of half a lemon

In a large skillet, heated for one minute on medium high heat, add the olive oil and the shrimp. 

Sauté for one minute, add the baby spinach, watercress, tomatoes and garlic. Toss for one more minute then season with salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes. 

Add the chicken stock and, if necessary, adjust the seasonings. 

Add the pasta and the lemon juice and toss for another minute. 

Finish with the freshly chopped basil leaves and serve hot.

Rustic Whole Wheat Penne Primavera

3 cups cooked penne “al dente”
1 bunch Swiss chard washed and roughly chopped
1 bunch of broccoli rabe, roughly chopped
1 cup cooked chickpeas. Reserve the liquid. If using canned, rinse under cold water.
1 cup of the reserved chickpeas cooking liquid. If canned chickpeas are used, use water.
3 cloves of garlic minced
4 medium plum tomatoes concassé (blanched, peeled seeded and diced)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ tablespoon of red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon of ground coriander
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
Parmesan cheese

In a large skillet, heated for one minute on medium high heat, add the olive oil, the red pepper flakes, coriander and tomatoes.

Add the chopped greens and sauté for two minutes. 

Add the garlic and season with salt and black pepper. 

Add the chickpeas and the reserved liquid from the chickpeas. 

Cover the pan and simmer for five minutes.

Adjust the seasonings if necessary and add the chopped rosemary leaves and the penne pasta. 

Toss and serve hot with lots of Parmesan cheese.

Fresh Whole Wheat Pasta Dough

1 ½ cups durum wheat flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 extra-large eggs
½ cup of water at room temperature

On a clean work surface mound all the dry ingredients to resemble a volcano.

Crack open all the eggs and place them in the crater to resemble the lava. 

Using a fork mix the eggs and work them into the flour gradually until they are completely incorporated. If the dough feels dry, add the water by increments of one tablespoon at a time until it comes together. 

When the dough has come together, wrap with plastic and allow the dough to rest for 20 minutes. 

Split the dough in quarters and, using a rolling pin, roll out each piece on a floured surface until they are 1/8 inch thick. 

Cut the dough into the desired shapes. Cook “al dente” for 2 minutes only.

I hope I have inspired you to cook up some delicious pasta dishes for your friends and family. 

Bon appètit!

Chef Fehmi Khalifa, “Your Own Personal Chef and Caterer,” runs a personal chef and catering service in the southeastern Massachusetts and Providence areas, offering a healthy alternative to fast foods for today’s busy families. For more information on Chef Fehmi, log on to www.ChefFehmi.com, e-mail ChefFehmi@live.com or call 508-951-4901.