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Name a food with no cholesterol and an endless repertoire of recipes. The answer? Pasta.

The Chinese first used the doughy delicacy around 5000 B.C.E, according to the National Pasta Association. Thousands of years later, the Italians perfected the art of pasta making, developing a plethora of techniques, recipes and sauces. Today, it is a staple in millions of diets. From mac and cheese to pad thai, pasta bridges age and culture boundaries.

The Dirt on the Dough

Once you try homeade, hand-kneaded pasta, you might not go back to the packaged stuff. To serve four, the basic ingredients for pasta dough are:

  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil (optional)
  • salt (to taste)

If you're feeling adventurous, add the following ingredients for a bit of color:

  • Green:
    Spinach is the key. Parboil or chard the leafy greens, then drain. Puree or finely chop and combine with the pasta ingredients.

  • Red:
    Pass the beets. Boil unpeeled beets in salted water until tender. Peel, chop and puree before adding to the dough ingredients. You can also use carrots.

  • Yellow:
    Add a pinch of ground saffron to the flour and salt for the pasta dough. Mix well before stirring in the eggs and oil.

  • Green Confetti:
    Fresh herbs, please! Chop your choice of fresh herbs. Mix and match basil and garlic or chives and green onion. For a more exotic taste, try sage, marjoram or even dandelion.

  • Purple/Black:
    A Venetian tradition made with squid ink. Add small amounts until you achieve the desired color.

Feeling adventurous? Try recipes for vegan appetites, eggplant cilantro pasta, or even cocoa noodles.

Rolling Along

Once you've prepared the dough, patience comes into play. Whether you roll out the dough by hand or use a machine, getting it to cooperate can be a little tricky. Here are some tips:

  • Separate the dough into several workable pieces.
  • Flour your work station to keep the dough from sticking.
  • Don't be afraid to roll it thin - pasta thickens as it cooks.
  • A step-by-step tutorial from French-trained chef David Gluckman might also prove helpful.

Shape Up

How will you choose between penne, cavatelli, and gnocchi? Believe it or not, the shape, size and texture of pasta is more than eye candy. The crazy contours were developed to hold particular sauces.

According to the National Pasta Association, lighter sauces complement thin pastas like angel hair or spaghetti. Thicker shapes, like fettuccine, are complemented by creamy and rich sauces. Pasta shapes with holes are great for chunky sauces.

Here are a few heavenly matches. For a more complete guide, visit Gourmet. For quick reference, consult CNN's Pasta Chart.

  • Fusilli
    These spirals are all-purpose. Good in soups, salads, or sauces.

  • Conchiglie
    Medium-sized shells put a new twist on mac and cheese.

  • Vermicelli
    Round and thinner than spaghetti. Great in stir fry or with any sauce.

Still can't tell fettucini and linguini apart? Consult the World Directory of Pasta Shapes for illustrations of traditional and unique shapes.

It's All in the Recipe

  • Recipesource: Pasta Recipes
    This compilation of 1,658 recipes offers a unique mix of homegrown recipes. Try the Pasta Blue, Alpine Baked Pasta Fontina, or Rotelle with Smoked Turkey, Broccoli and Peppers.

  • The Low-Fat Vegetarian Archive
    More than half of the vegetarian pastas at this site are vegan. Using everything from lima beans to tofu, these recipes provide great alternatives to the traditional fare.

All Things Pasta

  • Professional Pasta
    Offers information on pasta culture and goods, as well as raw materials, technologies, events, professional equipment, newsletters and more. You can also explore the controversy behind who ate pasta first.

  • National Pasta Association
    Offers a guide to techniques, recipes, fun facts and nutrition. Find out why penne and ditalini are better baked than served with sauce. You'll also find a complete list of American pasta makers and distributors here.

   --- N. Magistro

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