Pasta tops all sorts of lists as the world’s most popular food. But if you think you know all there is to know about this versatile component – think again. As often as we eat pasta and as much as it’s loved – I still find it to be a seriously misunderstood food.
So this month, I want to break down 3 big myths and truths about pasta including why I think it can and should be a true staple on your summer table.
Myth #1 – Pasta originated in Italy.
Truth – Pasta’s origins actually extend at least in part back to Greece.
Most people associate pasta with Italy but as your friendly Greek culinary ambassador, I’m here to tell you that many historians think pasta actually originated, at least in part, in my home country. Though Marco Polo is often credited with bringing pasta to Italy after being inspired by noodles he encountered while traveling in China, historians now say there are plenty of signs pasta was being consumed in Greece long before that.
There are mentions in Greek mythology of Hephaestus making a tool that created pasta-like ‘strings of dough.’ Ancient Greeks had a dish called laganon made of wide strips of pasta. Sounds a lot like lasagna, right? And then there’s makaria – a pasta that’s left at gravestones to honor the dead. You’ll still see this dish – reminiscent of macaroni – at modern-day Greek Orthodox funerals. The macaroni you get through Loi Food Products features this noodle with that authentic long cut.
The truth is – pasta likely comes from many places and every country puts its own delightful spin on it. But in Greece we do understand and deeply respect this food because we’ve been making and enjoying it for a very, very long time.
Myth #2 – Pasta is a heavy dish
Truth – It doesn’t have to be.
The beauty of pasta is that it is a blank culinary canvas – a vehicle for a chef’s epicurean vision. Pasta is enhanced by any flavors and textures it’s paired with, and there are literally thousands upon thousands of ways to make it. So the truth is – it’s not the pasta itself that is heavy – it’s really all about how you cook it.
In America, it’s common to load pasta up with heavy tomato and cream sauces and a lot of meat. When making pasta salads, mayonnaise is often used, which makes them heavy too. These may be the most common forms of pasta that end up at your summer BBQ or on your picnic table, but they’re far from the only option. There are plenty of light and refreshing ways to cook up pasta too. It really is all in the preparation.
Another reason that people think of pasta as heavy is because of how it’s served. In America it’s not at all unusual to see a full dinner plate piled high with a mountain of macaroni or loads of linguini. In contrast, in Greece pasta is more often a small part of a larger meal. Dishes are often about 1/3 pasta and 2/3 vegetables, and when pasta is the centerpiece, we generally serve it in smaller amounts.
Myth #3 – Pasta is a cold-weather dish
Truth – Summer is actually the best time of year to enjoy pasta.
From a functional perspective people associate pasta with winter because they think of it as a heavier, carb-loaded, comfort food dish. In Greece we eat pastas all year round, but there’s no question that for us that these dishes, like the sun, truly shine in the summer.
First of all, this time of year is when there’s the widest availability of amazing, fresh produce. Our gardens overflow in the summer with an incredible abundance of beautiful vegetables and herbs – from summer squash and zucchini to eggplant, bright red tomatoes and so much more. These ingredients are all the colors of the rainbow. They’re light, crispy and crunchy, and they make any dish sing.
The carbohydrates in pasta are a great source of energy this time of year when we’re more likely to be running, swimming, biking and playing. The versatility is especially useful in the summer too. Cold pasta salads are refreshing on a hot day and delightful with a chilled glass of wine. Pasta dishes are strong and resilient in the summer heat when set on a communal table where the meal is slow and the conversation is long. Pasta is quick and easy to make, which is a wonderful gift when you’re on-the-go this time of year too. Drizzle a little olive oil and cheese on some noodles and you can serve them quickly to your hungry family and friends or put it in a jar with olive oil, lemon and feta and take it to the beach for a scrumptious lunch.
Summer Pasta Recipes
Now that we’ve established that pasta is in fact the perfect summer dish – let’s talk about some of my favorite ways to prepare it.
One of my favorite pasta dishes is also the most simple – probably because it was a staple of my childhood. Take any noodle – macaroni, bucatini, penne or more. Add a healthy amount of cheese and olive oil and a few sprinkles of cinnamon – yes cinnamon. The result is a little bit like a deconstructed Greek noodle kugel. It’s exactly how my Aunt Maria Pegios (who now lives in Sydney, Australia) used to make it for me whenever I was having a tough day and it still warms my soul at the very first bite.
Spices over sauces
Sauce definitely lends a seasonal feel to a dish and my preference in the summer is to avoid heavy tomato and cream sauces and opt instead for olive oil to keep a dish light and fresh. An herbaceous pesto-like sauce is a great choice too.
Whichever you choose – rely on fresh herbs and spices to up the flavor ante this time of year since they abound. Garlic, basil, thyme, rosemary, parsley, chives – you literally can’t go wrong no matter what you pick.
Want to try an iconic Greek pasta dish? That has to be pastitsio. Our so-called Greek lasagna doesn’t use American lasagna noodles. We opt instead for long, hollow, tubular ones in this creamy, cheesy dish. You can add some real summer flavor with fresh herbs like parsley and mint and lighten it up with some delicate and beautiful summer greens on the side like dandelion or mustard. Another way to add some seasonal summer flair – use a wider lasagna noodle and put it on the grill until it bubbles and chars and then layer it in a pan with sauce and cheese.
Orzo is another quintessentially Greek pasta and it’s a wonderful summer choice. Load it up with literally any vegetable in your garden – cucumber, onion, summer tomatoes, peppers and carrots. Add some Greek feta, olives and olive oil and you have a supremely flavorful summer dish.
Feel like trying something totally new? Might I suggest a pasta pancake. Yep – I like to take Fidelini and mix it with a thin pancake batter. Let it sit for 5 minutes so the pasta softens a bit and then put it in the skillet and cook like a normal pancake. Drizzle it with honey and serve for breakfast or dessert – or put a sauce and cheese on it for a surprising, fun, unexpectedly delightful dinner or lunch with a crunch.
Want your kids to broaden their horizons? Try the new Kiddo Pasta coming to the US from Greece. My friend Athanasia Dakou created an amazing line that’s good-for-you, USDA organic, and kid-friendly! Her Kiddo Pasta line includes fun shapes like Little Animals, Little Dinosaurs, and Letters and Numbers. Each distinct shape is not only fun for kids, but also has added culinary benefits, like being great for sauces to grab onto, or ideal for soups and stews. Either way, you can definitely get your kids to eat more vegetables by pairing them with these playful cuts!
The bottom line is this: when it comes to pasta keep an open mind, try new things and accept a personal challenge to see how you can surprise yourself and others. Pasta is so versatile – it absolutely can be healthy and light – especially when you let your garden, your local farmer’s market, or the produce aisle be your guide. Experiment with it in new ways and I trust that you too will come to see it as I do – a healthy, light and delightful summer staple. Kalí órexi! Enjoy your meal!
For more information on Mediterranean pasta, please visit this website.