Our great nation celebrates National Pasta Day on October 17th…or tomorrow. I learned of it quite by accident the other day and was, frankly, pleasantly surprised. These days pasta is so often maligned as being nutritionally vacuous that the idea of celebrating it nationally came as a bit of welcomed respite.
After further checking, National Pasta Day does indeed have its moment in the sun. It just has to share it with 13 other ‘celebratees,’ the most interesting of which are Four Prunes Day, International Adjust Your Chair Day, National Clear Your Virtual Desktop Day and, most ambiguously, National Edge Day.
I sighed. How can pasta truly shine when it has to share the limelight with – conceivably – constipated, back aching, disorganized and uptight people? You’d think that something that predates doughnuts, bagels and sliced bread would warrant its own special day.
Thankfully, the world has pasta’s back.
In 1995, 40 pasta producers from around the world formed the World Pasta Congress to celebrate and promote pasta’s global appeal, convenience, healthfulness, and great taste. All too aware that fad diets and pseudo-science diet books were pooh-poohing carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, the congress began to meet every five years to elicit the help of scientists, nutritionists, world pasta manufacturers, durum wheat growers and millers, pasta equipment producers, government officials and the media in an effort to set the record straight.
And the record is one that’s worth setting straight. Mostly, when you can forget the self-interested aspect of pasta producers promoting pasta, the organization brings attention to mounting recent scientific studies which demonstrate pasta to be a health-promoting and nutritious food that, when paired with vegetables, beans, fish, meat and olive oil – like in this soup – it becomes a nutritionist’s downright dream.
Even with the research, getting folks to embrace pasta as a wholesome part of a healthy diet unfortunately remains a Sisyphean feat. As an unapologetic pasta worshipper, I feel the World Pasta Congress’s pain.
Just a few months ago I acutely felt the scrutiny pasta is under when I got on the phone with an old chum to pick his brain. I called him because I wanted to get his thoughts, as a highly intelligent and successful public relations professional, about potentially changing the name of my blog and column, Rustic Plate, to something that contained the word pasta. I was prepared for anything, I think, except for the words he uttered: ‘You might not want to associate yourself with the word pasta,’ he said. ‘Use something that’s considered more…healthful.’
Yikes! I couldn’t believe my ears. Over the years I watched him repeatedly revel in pasta dishes at my dinner table and I have to tell you that his words just hurt me smack in the middle of my feelings. Now I know he’s a good friend and that he didn’t mean to ruffle my sensitive Mediterranean feathers, but momentarily I did feel the same as when I discovered baby carrots weren’t really baby carrots but big, shaved carrots.
But getting back to my dear friend, who often travels the world and enjoys eating a variety of ethnic foods, if he was this closed to the idea of pasta as healthful, it surely means that the World Pasta Congress has some work to do.
And it’s doing it. For starters it has created its own annual World Pasta Day, which falls just eight days after National Pasta Day on 25th of October. Secondly, the two organizations that coordinate the World Pasta Congress, the I.P.O. (International Pasta Organization) and the AIDEPI (Italian for Association for Confectionery Industry and Italian Pasta), have good websites filled with scientific studies promoting pasta and its role within the Mediterranean diet. It’s all a good start and I invite you to go out and peruse what nutritionists have to say on the subject.
Much, much more needs to be done, though.
I’ll be curious to see how people respond to the designated pasta days tomorrow and on October 25th. You can bet I’ll be eating something carb-y, wholesome and delicious that starts with the letter ‘p.’
making farfalle pasta, vegetable & chicken meatball soup
Begin by making the meatballs. Place half of a stale baguette, sliced, in a medium-sized bowl and cover with water or milk. Soak for 15 minutes, turning the slices over twice. Squeeze as much of the liquid as possible from the bread slices and remove any hard pieces of crust that remain. Place squeezed bread in a large bowl. (If using a fresh baguette, toast slices in the oven at 350°F for 10 minutes and let cool.)
To the same large bowl add 1 lb. ground chicken meat, ½ cup breadcrumbs, 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, 3 TBSPs tomato paste, a handful of chopped parsley leaves, 3 eggs, and salt & pepper to taste. Mix well.
Mixture should be rather firm and easy to roll into approximately 50 small, ½” balls.
Heat a skillet on medium heat for a minute and then add just enough oil to completely cover the surface of the skillet. Add the meatballs.
Cook until they are golden all over. You will need to work in batches so as to not overcrowd the pan, which prevents them from browning properly.
Transfer them to a paper-towel lined plate and set aside. They will finish cooking when added to the soup.
Once the meatballs are done, we can get started on the soup.
Prep 2 leeks. Now leeks are tricky, depending on how dirty they are. I’ve purchased some that contained so much dirt between their layers that I had no choice but to slice them into rounds and wash them, making sure to separate all the layers within each round to dislodge the dirt.
In this particular case, I lucked out with these 2 leeks. As you can see they have no dirt whatsoever and so I could get away with just removing the two outer layers, rinsing them under cold water and then slicing them into 1/4″ rounds. I was happy I could do that because visually I love the look of leek medallions in this soup. I think they look sooooooo prrrreeeeety!
Add 2 TBSPs of olive oil to a medium sized pot. Heat on medium for a minute and then add the leek medallions, along with a couple pinches of salt and pepper to taste. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so.
While the leeks cook, prep 5 garlic cloves by peeling them and removing their internal green sprout. Now slice them thinly.
Add the sliced garlic to the leeks and cook for an additional minute. Add 5 cups of chicken broth and 5 medium carrots that have been washed and sliced into 1/2″ medallions. Bring to a gentle boil. Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until carrots are cooked through but still firm. Add the browned meatballs and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Add 1/2 lb. of cooked farfalle pasta and cook for an additional minute to heat through.
Take the pot off the stove and add 2 handfuls of washed baby spinach leaves whose stems have been removed and ¼ cup of freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Mix well. Let stand for 5 minutes to give the spinach leaves the time to wilt and the cheese to melt into the soup. Mix well once more. Ladle soup into bowls and top with a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Makes 6 servings.