Back to Basics: Pantry Staples – Pasta

Now we’ve been dealing with the Virus That Shall Not Be Named for over a year now, I feel like I may be somewhat late to the table with this advice. However, I feel that there may be a few people still out there who have decided the drive-through and Uber Eats Lyfe is no longer for them, and want to do more home-based cooking…but maybe don’t know where to start.

I’ve compiled a list and will be discussing, one by one, many of the widely available, basic pantry staples in the standard North American and European diet that will help you create a meal out of almost anything (within reason), some instructions on how to cook certain items, and links to my favourite recipes to get you started. Please see my other posts in the Back to Basics category for more recipes and meal ideas.

In a way, the addition of a segment on “pasta”, while wholly deserving of a place in your pantry, is a bit of a cheat…who doesn’t know how to add a jar of premade pasta sauce to an amount of cooked dry pasta, thereby killing off two pantry staples in one shot? But that’s not quite how we roll here at the BirdHouse, so I dug deeply into my archives, looking for some more interesting and lesser-known recipes that utilize pasta in all its forms, while still giving you the Kwality Kontent(TM) you’ve come to expect from me! (please don’t strain yourself laughing…). By no means do I consider this a comprehensive list, but I do cover off several recipes in a number of categories, and I’m always interested in hearing people’s requests, comments and suggestions.

According to a fascinating documentary called “Uncover the History of Pasta” from powerhouse PBS’s program The History Kitchen:

When we talk about pasta, we must first define the term. The word pasta is generally used to describe traditional Italian noodles, which differentiates it from other types of noodles around the world. Pasta is made from unleavened dough consisting of ground durum wheat and water or eggs. The use of durum wheat sets pasta apart from other forms of noodles. Durum wheat’s high gluten content and low moisture make it perfectly suited to pasta production. The durum wheat dough is pressed into sheets, cut into a variety of shapes, and cooked before serving., The History Kitchen, “Uncover the History of Pasta

Pasta is one of the world’s most available foods. Virtually every country has its own version; in Germany and Hungary they have spaetzle, which is a thinned out eggy, batter-like dough that is often dripped from a large-holed colander or a spaetzle-maker into boiling salted water. In Greeze, orzo is a fat rice-shaped wheat pasta. In Poland, they make and eat loads of delicious pierogi, which is a filled pasta made primarily from potatoes. Asia has a multitude of pasta types, primarily made from either wheat or rice. And in America, wheat pasta is often prepared and served similarly to the way it’s done in Italy.

I would bet that when many of us think of pasta we think of Italian food, and most people believe that it originated there. However, while wheat pasta is culturally Italian, it actually has a history far more in antiquity than you may have realized; many sources point to the ancient noodle makers of Asia as the true birthplace of modern pasta, with explorer Marco Polo bringing it to Italy from China in the 13th century.

I heartily admit that pasta is my number one favourite carb. That is, it ties for first place perfectly with potatoes, bread, and rice.

That joke only makes sense if you saw the width of my hips.

But seriously, folks, what’s not to love about pasta? While pasta purists may turn up their noses at dried, commercially prepared pasta in comparison to the toothsome flavour of a freshly-made hank of homemade fettuccini, there are few staples that are as shelf-stable, inexpensive, and versatile as your standard box or bag of dried pasta. And with the right preparation and ingredients, you can make even the dollar box of spaghetti taste like it came from a fancy Italian restaurant (though I do highly recommend buying a slightly higher quality of pasta if you can afford it).

And speaking of versatile, there are so many different types of commercially-made pasta on the market these days to cater to the budgets, tastes and dietary needs of nearly everyone, from gluten-free corn and quinoa pastas, to only 5 calories per serving konjac pasta (AKA Shirataki noodles), to high-end squid ink, sun-dried tomato or spinach pasta formulated for specific dishes.

The Standard: I would imagine that most people who are reading this are conversant with how to make a basic tomato-based spaghetti sauce. Whether it’s a quick and simple, meatless marinara sauce or a multi-hour-time-investment meaty Bolognese sauce, tomato-based pasta sauces are the gold standard for a multitude of shapes of wheat pasta, though we often may often first think of spaghetti and sauce, with or without meatballs. My post on one of the most delicious tomato-based sauces I’ve ever made and eaten, named Al Trotter’s Signature Spaghetti Sauce, is highly recommended for an adult audience (although the alcohol in the red wine burns off over such a long cook time, it’s definitely a more intensely flavoured sauce and may not be a hit with the littles). In that case, may I recommend a sauce I have humbly named “The Most Delicious Spaghetti Sauce Ever“? It can be made as meaty or as meatless as you prefer, and it works exceptionally well in lasagna and other baked pasta dishes.

The Cheesy: Until very recently, cheesy and creamy pastas were my absolute ride-or-die when it came to personal preference (if anyone has been reading my posts for any length of time, you’d know my obsession with macaroni and cheese), so it should come as no surprise that I have not one, not two, but three posts specifically on macaroni and cheese and its many variations; the review I did on my culinary hero Alton Brown’s version of Baked Macaroni and Cheese, how I batch cooked 5-Cheese Macaroni and Cheese with my friends for a freezer meal weekend, and most recently, how to shoehorn more vegetables into your mac, with Sneaky Veggie Baked Mac and Cheese.

Also included in the “cheesy” category would be this delicious recipe for batch freezing loads of Spinach Cheese Manicotti, which can also be within the tomato sauce category, plus one of my guilty pleasures, Tex-Mex Cheesy Mac Casserole, which I try not to make more than half a dozen times a year (because again with the no self-control..). A new favourite is this delicious and visually beautiful, Insta-worthy Baked Feta Pasta, which makes its own sauce and is far simpler to make than it looks.

The Creamy: Since I tasted my first Fettucine Alfredo when I was young, I’ve always considered this to be the trinity of simplicity, richness, and flavour. My version I call Cheaty-Fettucine Alfredo I think is a good compromise between the purity of the original recipe, and the realistic modern needs of today’s kitchen.

Another delicious entrant to the “Creamy” category is this batch-cooked Creamy Chicken Vegetable Pasta Bake, which can also be made vegetarian, and freezes and reheats like a champ.

Lastly, this Swedish meatballs and gravy recipe works incredibly well over broad egg noodles, and is a simple, practical, and grocery-budget-stretching marvel.

The Clean: This is an oddly-named category, but I couldn’t think of how else to describe this recipe for Spaghetti with Grape Tomatoes and Basil, with its sauce-that’s not-a-sauce; with no crushed or diced tomatoes, cream, or cheese, you would think this pasta sauce-that’s-not-a-sauce would be boring and flat, but you’d be wrong. With so few ingredients, its simplicity means that you have nowhere to hide, so bring your A-game. Of all of the recipes I’ve posted here, I would have to admit that this is the recipe I keep coming back to time after time. I’d say with total honesty that I eat this pasta monthly, which is a big deal because my spouse does not care for it, so I’m making it solely for me and he has to fend for himself (I usually call those dinners “cereal night specials”, since if I’m not making dinner for both of us he will often just eat whatever cereal is in the cupboard).

Also in this category, I’ll state that this Dairy Free Pasta Salad is delicious, and while it has no cream, does have an unctuous quality that helps bring together all of the other ingredients, and makes it so that I can eat a quart-sized Ziploc bag of this pasta within 4 days…which is why I don’t make it often as I have no self-control around it. This can absolutely be made vegan by substituting the mayo with a vegannaise of choice.

So I hope that that you’ve found at least a few recipes above that help you use up some of that pantry pasta! Please comment below if there are any pasta related recipes you’d like me to try.


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