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A Mom's Favorite Pasta With Cheese
By Lidia Matticchio Bastianich,
Author of Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes

There is a natural affinity between pasta and cheese, but they can't be paired indiscriminately. In Italy, cheese is used with pasta very selectively, judiciously, and with proper timing.

Pasta does not always require cheese. In Italy, cheese is never served with seafood pasta, and it is sometimes omitted when serving game sauces or sauces containing hot pepper.

Cheese should be added to pasta as soon as the pasta is cooked and ready to serve -- if extended heat is applied to cheese, the proteins will separate from the fat and you may end up with stringy cheese and oily pasta. To add a classic final touch you can grate or shave cheese over plated pasta.

The three cheeses that are most often used to dress pasta in Italy are Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and Grana Padano. Each cheese has its own characteristics and its own uses.

Parmigiano Reggiano is the undisputed king of Italian cheeses. Its round, complex flavor and aroma add character and flavor to most pasta. It goes especially well with homemade pasta, stuffed pasta and baked pasta. Parmigiano Reggiano comes from the region of Emilia Romagna in central Italy and is made of 100% cow's milk. It must age for up to two years so that the cheese will acquire the intense, complex flavor for which it is known. The cheese is a pale, golden yellow and has the aroma of milk, butter hay, and spring flowers. The taste is delicate but creamy with a slightly nutty, spicy finish. In order to ensure authenticity, look for the Parmigiano Reggiano name embossed on the rind.

Pecorino Romano has a sharper and much more intense taste than Parmigiano Reggiano. This cheese makes an excellent companion to zesty, fiery, spicy sauces, and it can be used to perk up an otherwise nondescript sauce. It is made of 100% sheep's milk and is made all over Southern and Central Italy. Some of the best pecorino comes from Lazio, the island of Sardegna and Tuscany. This cheese generally ages for eight months or more and results in a hard cheese that is wonderful for grating. To ensure that you are buying authentic Pecorino, make sure you look for the logo of the sheep's head embossed on the wheel.

Grana
Padano can be used as a substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano. This classic cheese is also an excellent partner for most pasta dishes. Grana Padano is produced in the same designated provinces as Parmigiano Reggiano, including Piedmont, Veneto, and Emilia Romagna. Grana Padano is produced in much larger quantities than Parmigiano Reggiano and does not need to age as long as Parmigiano Reggiano. Instead, it ages for a year and a half and can vary in taste from somewhat milky to complex and pronounced. It is a little less expensive than Parmigiano Reggiano. You will be able to tell that you are buying authentic Italian Grana Padano when the name is embossed all over the rind.

SPAGHETTINI WITH OLIVE OIL AND GARLIC

This classic Italian dish has found a permanent spot in Italian American cuisine. You can dress it with Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, or Grana Padano. And I guarantee that it's a favorite for kids as well as moms. Why? Because it tastes delicious and requires very little clean up!

Serves six

  • Salt
  • 1 pound spaghettini or vermicelli
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • ½ teaspoon (or more to taste) crushed red pepper
  • ½ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano

Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat. Stir the spaghettini into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until tender, but still very firm, about 6 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, shaking the skillet and stirring, until pale golden, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and add ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper.

Ladle about 1 ½ cups of the pasta cooking water into the sauce. Add the parsley, the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt to taste.

If the skillet is large enough to accommodate the sauce and pasta, fish the pasta out of the boiling water with a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into the sauce in the skillet. If not, drain the pasta, return it to the pot and pour in the sauce. Bring the sauce and pasta to a simmer, tossing to coat with sauce. Cook until the pasta is coated with the sauce and done, about 1 minute. Remove the pot from the heat and toss in the grated cheese, if using. Check the seasoning, adding salt and crushed red pepper if necessary. Serve immediately in warm bowls.

© 2010 Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali, authors of Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes

Author Bio
Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, coauthor of Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipe, is the author of five previous books, four of them accompanied by nationally syndicated public television series. She is the owner of the New York City restaurant Felidia (among others), and she lectures on and demonstrates Italian cooking throughout the country. She lives on Long Island, and can be reached at her Web site, www.LidiasItaly.com.