Italian cooks know that one of the best ways to showcase their superb stuffed pastas is to serve them in clear soups. In fact, most restaurant menus in Italy begin with a whole category of dishes called pasta in brodo, or pasta in broth.
For some reason, Americans have concentrated on pastas in sauce. Yet pasta in broth deserves to be equally familiar to us. When served in a fine soup, pasta is tasty and usually lower in calories than if tossed with sauce. Today, with so many varieties of fresh stuffed pastas available in the refrigerator cases of supermarkets, this type of dish is easy to make and fits perfectly into full schedules.
I find it convenient to keep my freezer stocked with several packages of stuffed pastas--tortellini, ravioli and the half-moon-shaped agnolotti. Whether filled with meat, chicken, cheese or vegetables, all are good in soup. They can be easily popped into the pan while still frozen. You simply add about two minutes to the cooking time specified on the package.
For serving in soup, boil the pasta in a large pan of boiling salted water in the usual way or cook it directly in the soup. In the second case, use slightly lower heat so the soup won't reduce too much. The pasta requires a few more minutes of cooking, but it's easier because you need only one pan. Either way, the pasta is ready in a few moments.
In Italy, pasta in brodo is a first course, but for quick meals it can make a delightful main course. Along with--or slightly before--putting the pasta in the broth, add a few diced or sliced fast-cooking fresh vegetables, such as leeks, mushrooms, zucchini or green beans, or frozen ones such as peas or corn.
Figure out the time according to the package directions. For example, if tortellini requires six minutes and frozen peas need two minutes, cook the tortellini for four minutes and then add the peas. Actually, you don't have to be too exact; nobody insists on precisely cooked, tender-crisp vegetables in their soup. It's better to cook them a bit too much than too little.
Of course, the soup will be most delicious if you use homemade chicken or meat stock. But for the busy seasons when there's no time to make it, canned or frozen stock or broth, when reinforced with the flavor of vegetables and seasonings, can be the basis for good-tasting soups. Of the canned soups, I find that the low-salt versions give the best results.
A soup with filled pasta is quite substantial, but to make it even more so, you can add cubes or strips of cooked poultry or meat and heat them in the soup for a minute or two. For a fresh touch, stir in diced tomatoes and chopped fresh herbs or green onions at the last minute.
Bright green pasta looks especially pretty in golden chicken broth dotted with diced tomatoes. For this delicate soup, I prefer to use small spinach tortellini with a cheese filling. If you like, serve the soup with grated Parmesan cheese.
CHICKEN SOUP WITH SPINACH TORTELLINI, TOMATO AND MUSHROOMS
2 (14-ounce) cans clear chicken broth or 4 cups homemade chicken stock
1 1/2 cups water
4 ounces small mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Freshly ground pepper
1 (8- to 10-ounce) package fresh spinach tortellini, ravioli or agnolotti
1 small zucchini, cut into thin strips
1 large tomato, diced small
2 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro
Combine broth, water, mushrooms, celery, thyme and dash pepper in medium saucepan. Add salt if using unsalted homemade stock. Bring to simmer.
Add pasta and zucchini and bring to boil. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat about 6 minutes or until pasta is just tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally.
Add tomato and heat about 1 minute. Add parsley. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve. Makes 2 to 3 main-course or 4 to 5 first-course servings.
Pasta with a beef or chicken filling is perfect in this hearty soup.
AGNOLOTTI IN BEEF BROTH WITH GREEN VEGETABLES
2 (14-ounce) cans beef broth (not condensed) or 4 cups homemade beef stock
2 1/2 cups water
Freshly ground pepper
1 small carrot, diced small
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 (8- to 10-ounce) package fresh beef or chicken agnolotti, ravioli or tortellini
1/2 pound broccoli, cut into small florets
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
Combine broth, water, dash pepper, carrot and garlic in medium saucepan. Add salt if using unsalted homemade stock. Bring to boil.
Cook, covered, over medium-low heat 5 minutes. Add pasta and broccoli and bring to boil. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, 4 minutes.
Add peas and cook about 2 minutes or until pasta is tender but still firm to the bite. Add green onions. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve. Makes 2 to 3 main-course or 4 to 5 first-course servings.