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The New Pastas: Healthier, Better — But Rarely Both

Dry pasta has always presented a strange problem for me at the supermarket. Most stores sold the same few brands, all of which were literally impossible to tell apart once cooked. I say literally because it's not just that they tasted similar, like colas or potato chips; once out of the box, I couldn't distinguish one from the other. Barilla, De Cecco, Ronzoni, even the generic supermarket stuff — as soon they hit boiling water, they were all the same: fattening and good. Or, at least, good enough.

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Today, though, we're seeing a new wave of pastas, some of which claim to actually be good for you, and others which, while no healthier than before, boast finer quality (at a commensurately higher price). Earlier this month, whole-grain Racconto Essentials pasta began making its way into thousands of stores and claiming on the packaging "to help reduce cholesterol in as little as 4 weeks." How? The heart-healthy pasta, made in collaboration with agribusiness giant Cargill, contains plant sterols that are clinically proven to lower bad cholesterol. (Plant sterols, in case you are wondering, are natural chemicals in fruits and vegetables that the FDA says may help reduce the risk of heart disease.) Dreamfields pastas claim, in even more baffling scientific language, to have in effect one-eighth the carbohydrates of regular pastas, and a greatly reduced glycemic index, so that you don't get the huge blood-sugar spikes that turn you into a "spaghetti zombie" after big meals — and which create much bigger problems for people with diabetes. There are organic pastas, whole-wheat pastas, and artisanal bronze-die pastas from Italy. How can you sort them out? By taste, of course. This is pasta we're talking about. It has to taste good, or you might as well just eat kelp.

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First, the good news. I'm now into my second case of Dreamfields spaghetti, and it's the answer to my carb-jonesing prayers. I buy it on the net at the official site and I still don't exactly understand how its indigestible carbs work, but I know that I can eat it four times a week and not gain weight the way I would from its less bio-engineered cousins. I am peppy and productive even after a big bowl, which is a miracle. What isn't such a miracle is a side effect of its prebiotic (i.e., good for the bacteria in your gut) fiber: I tend to become as gassy as a small zeppelin after eating it. So while Dreamfields in some ways is a dream come true for me, it's less so for those around me. Proceed with caution.

The bad news? The Racconto people sent me some samples of their new pasta, which will start hitting stores nationwide this week, and it may well be good for you, but it tastes exactly as terrible as I feared something that healthy would. Like so many of these whole-grain health pastas, it feels like it has sawdust mixed into it. (Then again, I still prefer Wonder Bread to seven-grain, so maybe my childhood is to blame.) If you're looking to feel a little better about the pasta you eat, consider an organic one like Mantova. The samples I recently received don't taste any better than Barilla or De Cecco, but you know at least that there are no pesticides in it. What you're really looking for with healthy pasta isn't for it to taste better; you just want it not to be awful. Mantova passes that test with flying colors, as does Dreamfields — with the aforementioned caveats.

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For those of us who want the best possible taste, health effects be damned, what matters about the pasta is less what's inside of it than what's on the outside. Spaghetti, it turns out, is one book that you can judge by its cover. The machines used at the old Italian pasta factories are made of bronze, a soft metal that picks up a lot of tiny nicks and scratches over the years. Those textured surfaces impart a micro-abrasive scratchiness to the soft dough as it passes through them. So many good things happen from that scratchiness: sauces cling like butter to an English muffin, the pasta has a richer, more complex mouthfeel, and seems to give up more starch to the water, which makes it easier to bind with the sauce when you plop the still-dripping spaghetti into that warmed pan of marinara. The downside, of course, is that these luxury brands of pasta, such as Lensi, Latini, and di Gragnano, can cost up to three or four times as much as their smoother supermarket rivals. But since that's still less than $10, I still willingly buy them — especially given how far a pound of pasta will go.

Whichever pasta you decide to try — and I would heartily recommend trying all of them — nothing else matters if you don't cook it properly. Just as Chanel looks bad when worn by a retching starlet on YouTube, even di Gragnano pasta will be mediocre if you overcook it or, worse still, douse it with cold water, washing away all that starchy pasta water that is its soul and secret. Here are four good tips for cooking any pasta, old or new:

1. Cook it in less water rather than more. The less water, the starchier the water — and the starchier the water, the better your still-dripping pasta will taste once it meets up with your sauce.

2. Make sure the water is salty. Maybe not quite seawater salty, but noticeably salty. I use about two to three tablespoons for a small pot before bringing the water to a boil.

3. Don't rinse the pasta with cold water or any-other-temperature water. Lift it with tongs or a strainer directly into a pan with the heated sauce, and finish cooking it there for a minute or two.

4. Put the pasta and sauce in a bowl, and mix in a little high-quality extra virgin olive oil, or a little butter, to enrich and thicken everything. Add good Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese as desired. Plate and serve.

Source: www.time.com

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