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Pasta: The Essence of Italy

July 13, 1986|BETSY BALSLEY | Betsy Balsley is food editor of The Times.

Remember when the word pasta meant little more than a dish of spaghetti or macaroni? Only those who lived in areas populated by Italian immigrants or their descendants were familiar with pastas made in other shapes or from other ingredients. It rarely occurred even to a pasta lover that it was possible to make this Italian staple at home. And who ever thought of flavoring pasta with colorful vegetables or herbs? In retrospect, this attitude seems remarkably insular. The Spaghetti Historical Museum in Pontedassio on the Italian Riviera has references to pasta that date to Etruscan times, and writings that mention it predate Marco Polo, who frequently is credited with introducing pasta to the West from China. Today pasta comes in myriad shapes, from huge shells that are delightful stuffed with a delicious filling to spaghettini as thin as filament. The basic paste product is often mixed with vegetables and fruits, thus providing flavor and color. Carrots, tomatoes, spinach and assorted herbs are added to the pasta flour--preferably a semolina flour--and egg mixture, making a pasta meal both pretty and tasty. Not only that, but today it is as easy to buy fresh pasta as it is to purchase the dried types. One of the great advantages to having a truly broad selection of pastas is the variety it adds to meals. A rich, green spinach fettuccine is a world apart in taste from a red-gold, carrot-flavored pasta. The two can be combined, with or without plain pasta. A look at the variety of the many pastas available today.

CONCHIGLIE CON ZUCCHINE (Pasta Shells With Zucchini)

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 clove garlic, minced

3 or 4 zucchini, sliced

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves

Salt, pepper

1 pound large pasta shells

2 quarts boiling salted water

2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram or parsley

cup grated Parmesan cheese

Melt butter over medium heat in large skillet. Add garlic and zucchini and cook until tender-crisp. Add rosemary and season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn up heat and cook 1 to 2 minutes to blend flavors. Remove from heat and set aside. Cook pasta shells in boiling salted water . Drain and turn into zucchini mixture. Place pan over low heat and toss to coat shells with sauce. Sprinkle with marjoram and cheese and toss again. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

MOSTACCIOLI VEGETABLE SALAD

8 ounces mostaccioli, cooked and drained

1 1/2 cups cubed cooked turkey or chicken

1 cup peas, cooked and drained

1 cup julienned yellow beans, cooked and drained

cup coarsely chopped radishes

cup oil

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons chopped onion

1/2 teaspoon crushed oregano

Salt, pepper

Combine mostaccioli, turkey, peas, beans and radishes in large bowl. Toss to mix. In small jar, combine oil, vinegar, onion and oregano. Shake well to mix. Cover both mixtures and chill until serving time. At serving time, shake dressing to blend, pour over mostaccioli mixture and toss gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 4 servings.

SPAGHETTINI ALLA PUTTANESCA

4 large mushrooms, sliced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup large capers

5 Italian black olives, pitted and sliced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 pound spaghettini, cooked and drained

Salt, pepper

Saute mushrooms and garlic in large heavy skillet in cup olive oil until mushrooms are tender. Add remaining olive oil and heat until hot. Stir in capers, olives, chives and parsley. Add drained spaghettini, tossing to coat. Heat 1 to 2 minutes, or until heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings. PRODUCED BY ROBIN TUCKER

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