What does pasta night mean at your house? Spaghetti? That’s OK; it’s just kinda…boring. Spaghetti is more or less just a bunch of straight lines, really. You can do better than that. And even if you’re not sure you can do better than that, at least you can count on Jolly Tomato (with not one but two Italian last names) to help you fix your boring pasta dinner.
The first step is to find some pasta to cook other than spaghetti. Fortunately, the increasing availability of unusual or authentic pastas is a theme that’s starting to emerge on many of our shopping trips. Sure, you’ll almost always find spaghetti, linguine, vermicelli, macaroni, and some variety of rotini and farfalle (butterfly or bow tie pasta). But if you look in stores that are reasonably well stocked with a few Italian brands, you might be pleasantly surprised with some new shapes and varieties.
We started thinking about this recently when we served trottole on pasta night. In Italian, trottole means “spinning tops,” which is not an entirely bad description. It marked one of the few times we’ve set the pasta down on the table and everyone in the family said, “Whoa.” We kind of felt bad for all of the families that were just eating plain old spaghetti that night. In the past you might have been able to find trottole only at a specialty pasta shop, but Safeway stores are currently selling some under the Safeway Select label. The ones we ate were an imported brand from our local Fresh and Easy. We ate these with pesto (made with basil fresh from the farmers’ market) that worked its way delightfully into all of the little nooks and crannies.
Another current favorite is casarecce (pronounced cah-sah-RECH-ay), which we found recently at Whole Foods Market. Casarecce is a traditional pasta from the region of Italy known as Puglia (the heel of Italy’s “boot”). The name literally means “home-style;” we call them “fingers-crossed pasta.” They remind us a little bit of another pasta we love, gemelli (“twins”) (pronounced jeh-MEL-ee), which is made from two short strands of pasta twisted together. Both casarecce and gemelli are great sturdy, chewy pastas that will hold their own next to heavy meat sauces or big chunks of vegetables; or stand on their own with a little olive oil and some grated cheese.
Another wonderful sturdy pasta is orecchiette (“little ears”) (pronounced oh-reh-KYEH-tey), which we tried for the first time in Italy. It’s hard to top that memory, but we’ve been working on it. If you’re in the mood for something a little different, try this orecchiette with toasted bread crumbs recipe from Giada DeLaurentiis on Food Network. You can find orecchiette in most well-stocked supermarkets; we saw it recently at Vons/Safeway under the De Cecco brand label.
If your kids will balk at anything other than spaghetti, try bucatini, which is like a thick piece of spaghetti that is hollow inside, for a fun change of pace. But be forewarned: This could lead to some slurpy dinner experimentation. Also, for a while we had been enjoying the circle pasta known as anelli (we call it hula hoop pasta) from Trader Joe’s. We didn’t see them on our last trip, but that’s not to say they won’t show up again soon. Both of these are pastas we like to serve with a simple red sauce.
If you prefer to eat whole-grain or vegetable-based varieties, you’ll probably find some cool shapes among those as well. And if you need more explanations (or inspiration), you can go to this nicely illustrated pasta glossary at The Nibble or to this pasta dictionary at Food Info.