Nicole's Taste of Health

Donta be lasta for pasta
Pasta generates such varied responses nowadays. I’m not sure how this humble food went from a much-loved traditional staple to eliciting fear and loathing for its carb content, but such is our whacky, affluent Western, diet-obsessed world. The origin of pasta is an age-old argument between the Chinese and the Italians, but noodles and pasta are both simple recipes of flour, water and perhaps a little egg. It was the type of wheat used, accompaniments, that spliced the gastronomic evolutionary tree into divergent directions. The best pasta is made from especially hard durum wheat and Australia grows some of the best in the world.

The exact origins of pasta are just academic now because Italian cuisine and pasta have travelled the world and made themselves at home everywhere. To an Italian, the love of pasta is almost encoded in their DNA and symbolic of family, culture and the enjoyment of food and life. It would not be unusual in an Italian household to eat pasta every day of the week and never tire of it because there are so many shapes and sauces: Monday night spaghetti with pesto sauce; Tuesday night penne with creamy mushroom sauce; Wednesday night cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach; Thursday night Rigatoni with tuna and capers, and Friday night lasagne with Napolitano sauce. Just writing these dishes is enough to make me salivate!

There are hundreds of shapes or ‘cuts’ of pasta which Italians categorise into two main groups: short cuts like penne, and long cuts like spaghetti. Many have delightful Italian names describing their shape, like linguini (little tongues); vermicelli (worms); spaghetti (little strings), capellini (thin hair); fusilli (long rifles); orechiette (little ears); Fettuccine (little slices); penne (quill); spiralli (spiral); conchiglie (shell); farfalle (butterflies) and risoni (rice). There are also pasta shapes that can be filled such as cannelloni, ravioli and lasagne and are a class of their own.

The versatility of pasta is further enhanced because you can serve it hold or cold with lunch or dinner and it goes with just about anything. I always cook more pasta than I need for one meal so I can whip up a salad the next day and turn it into something different. Another super time-saving tip is you can cook up a load and freeze it into meal size portions for those days when you don’t even have the 15 minutes needed to cook dry pasta. And of course these days you can even buy fresh pasta that takes very little time to reheat. Importantly, pasta is affordable and convenient. The typical dried form can be stored in the cupboard for long periods to form the basis of a quick meal in a hurry.

Pasta is a carbohydrate food that provides energy to the brain and muscles but it is low GI when cooked al dente so it releases its energy more gradually and is gentler on blood glucose levels. A one-cup serving of plain pasta is low in salt (but watch out for the sauces), contains 9g protein, 43g carbohydrate and 3g fibre, and is high in the B vitamins thiamine and folate, and the mineral manganese.

Wholegrain (wholemeal) pasta is increasingly available as the world catches on to the health benefits of eating all the good bits of the grain (bran and germ) rather than just the starchy part. Sure, traditional Italian pasta is not wholegrain but why not utilise the even healthier version? We’ve got more dietary downsides to make up for than traditional Italian cuisine! The taste (and texture) varies by brand so try a few wholegrain pastas until you find one you like.

Contrary to popular mythology, pasta is not especially fattening, however attention to the sauce recipe and portion size will help reduce kilojoule (calorie) overload. While Italian peasant farmers could get away with huge bowls of the stuff to fuel their physical labours, most of us need to cut the portion down and balance it out with vegetables (or salad) and some lean meat, chicken, fish, egg or legumes (pulses) to suit our high-tech habits. While creamy sauces with bacon and four cheeses do taste delightful they don’t sit well with our office jobs, widening waistlines and creeping cholesterol levels and blood pressure, so choose lighter tomato-based sauces or a simple pesto. Of course a truly authentic pasta meal must be enjoyed with gusto: passionate discussion, noisy slurping, lots of hand gestures and nice glass of red.

Buon appetito!

Nicole and Finn

Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author and consultant who strives to make healthy food taste terrific. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or checkout her website