The Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles

The Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles

by the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine

Clarkson N. Potter, 484 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken noodle soup, macaroni and cheese, kugel -- Americans have eaten varieties of pasta for a long time, even though the use of the umbrella term "pasta" only recently penetrated the popular vernacular. While many of us tend to take pasta for granted and often use it as a mindless solution to the dinner question, The Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles is a handy and interesting compendium; it serves as both Pasta 101 -- a primer for novices that begins with the proper way to boil dried pasta -- and a survey course of world pasta dishes, useful to anyone wanting to broaden their pasta repertoire. In addition to the 450 recipes, it covers how to judge and buy fresh and dried products, and make your own pasta, and includes discussions of the best methods for preparing each dish, based on the extensive testing and combined experience of the crack Cook's Illustrated team.

If you are familiar with the magazine, you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect in The Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles: meticulous recipe testing and commentary, step-by-step instructions, carefully detailed drawings of procedures, and lots of tips about technique. This is the first of a series of in-depth, single-subject cookbooks, geared toward American tastes and American home kitchens. The emphasis is on European-tradition pastas (Spätzle to gnocchi to penne), but approximately one-fifth of the book covers Asian-style noodles, including condiments, sauces, flavor combinations, and recipes.

The 13 chapters about sauces discuss what works best with which kind of pasta, and they offer a wide variety of vegetable, seafood, meat, and bean sauces. While some of the recipes are not brilliantly inspiring, they are all reliable, tasty, and easy to prepare, and the combinations and methods provide solid standards that you can adapt based on the ingredients in your pantry.

I find the chapters on lasagne and baked pastas much more intriguing. They are rife with good general advice (like the combination of a shallow pan and high oven heat for best results), and they include updated and vastly improved versions of comfortable old favorites like tuna noodle casserole and baked macaroni and cheese. During my post-holiday trolling for turkey recipes, I tried their version of that school-cafeteria classic, turkey tetrazzini (spaghetti, turkey, mushrooms, and peas baked in a light parmesan velouté under crispy seasoned breadcrumbs); it was quick, hearty, flavorful, and tasted nothing at all of the lunchroom.

I am especially enamored of the recipes for crespelles, crêpelike pancakes rolled around various fillings and baked in béchamel sauce; I'm also looking forward to trying some of the lasagne combinations, such as Gruyère and asparagus. The tips for successful pasta salads are invaluable, and the section about the (mostly Italian) pasta soups makes me want to fetch the kettle and get busy.

One thing missing from the recipes is preparation time. Some of them are fast, some are time-consuming, and this would be helpful to know right up front. My major irritant, as usual, is an inconsistent index. The book is crammed with incredibly useful illustrated sidebars that are inexplicably excluded from the index. For example, you might recall seeing instructions for cutting up a pineapple, but you'll never find them again by using the index. Such quibbles aside, this compendium/instruction manual for world pasta is a valuable addition to the curious cook's bookshelf.

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