Last week I went on a little adventure to Chicago to help judge the Barilla® World Pasta Master’s U.S.-qualifying event—which basically means I got to learn a whole lot about + eat some delicious pasta 😀 The folks at Barilla have been making pasta in Italy for over 140 years, so I was ready to soak up as much information as possible from these pasta-making masters. I have some tips for upping your pasta game below, I learned all these during the 2-hour competition between 4 chefs from all across the U.S. Each of the chefs had 30 minutes to prepare a pasta dish, and we judged the final dish they presented based on three factors.
This is a sponsored post with Barilla. All thoughts and opinions are my own, per usual!
- Presentation – Things like the color, balance of plating, elegance, creativity, and overall beauty of the dish.
- Recipe – The textural elements of the ingredients, the use of fresh produce, the pasta shape’s interaction with the sauce, and the key pasta-to-sauce ratio (the sauce should *not* overpower the pasta).
- Quality – The pasta has to be “al dente”, which means firm to the bite. It should not be undercooked (chewy and tough) and it should not be overcooked (mushy). The portion size is also key, it should be about 1 cup of pasta balanced with proteins, veggies, and legumes. The theme for this night’s competition was “Good for You, Good for the Planet” so we were also judging on how the recipe fit within the theme, as well.
It was insanely impressive. The creativity, speed, and beauty that they were able to create in that timeline (and with folks asking them questions as they were cooking, too!) For the first round, Chef Chris Requena of Wexler’s Deli made an angel hair pasta salad with a tuna and anchovy-based sauce, topped with more tuna, fresh fennel fronds, and caviar. For the second round, Chef Mattia Marcelli of Delarosa made spaghetti with a tomato and uni sauce, topped with fava beans, ramps, micro-greens, pan-seared cherry tomatoes, and more uni. For the third round, Chef Carolina Diaz of Terzo Piano made a rigatoni with a tomato-based sauce, served in a small pool of parsley oil and topped with raw tuna and spring onions. And for the final round, Chef Brian Lavin of Gnocco made a rigatoni with a sautéed tomato-based sauce with calamari, topped with dill fronds and toasted seasoned breadcrumbs.
In the end, Chef Carolina Diaz won and she’ll be headed to the World Pasta Masters championship in Milan in October….and I will be, too! Yep, I’m gonna learn all about pasta in Italy and report all my findings back to you guys. SO insanely excited!!! The last time I was in Italy I literally ate pasta every single day and it was pretty much the best week ever, so I can’t wait to be elbows-deep in it. You can follow along with the journey up to the World Pasta Masters in Milan at @BarillaUS on instagram and at the World Pasta Masters page, so excited to share it with you guys!
I was so inspired by all the dishes the chefs made, I decided to make a little dish of my own drawing from each of the chefs’ creations and from the bounty of bright green spring produce. That’s one of the things I love most about Barilla pasta, it’s such a great way to incorporate fresh, farm-to-table, seasonal ingredients into your daily life in an easy and approachable way. You don’t have to be a master chef to make a delicious produce-packed meal with pasta. It’s also super versatile, so I was able to incorporate a ton of the spring goodness from my garden into it, too (I’m looking at you, snap peas + parsley!)
Okay, so the pesto spaghetti! I ended up making the pesto with a strong parsley base, inspired by the gorgeous fresh green parsley oil that Chef Diaz made for the Barilla Master’s event. I also incorporated some traditional bits, like fresh basil, walnuts (although I toasted these guys to give the sauce a slightly nuttier flavor), olive oil, parmesan, and garlic. But I added one more extra-umami ingredient—some anchovies to bring the savory element of the pesto up a notch, taken from Chef Requena’s sauce. For the toppings on the pasta, I caramelized some spring onions (thanks for the inspo, Chef Marcelli!), and tossed those in, along with sautéed asparagus and fresh chopped snap peas (I left the little baby ones whole). To top it off, I sprinkled on a mixture of toasted breadcrumbs, toasted garlic, and fresh minced parsley. This was inspired by both Chef Lavin’s breadcrumbs topping, and the magical breadcrumb mixture Valentina Solfrini’s mom topped all her pasta with in Italy. Every day for lunch her mom prepared the family a different kind of pasta with produce from their garden; it was so nice having the family gather together in the middle of each day to share a delicious meal and spend time together. I love the way good food like pasta makes you feel connected to the people in your life. I hope you guys enjoy this pesto spaghetti and that it encourages you to share it with someone special, too!
Top 5 Tips for Becoming a Master of Pasta
- Always cook “al dente”, aka always cook the pasta until it is still firm and slightly toothy. Always check and follow the cooking instructions on the pasta package to make this happen. If it is mushy, it is overcooked. If it is chewy and tough, it is undercooked.
- Always season the boiling water *before* you add the pasta.
- Cook the pasta until nearly done in the boiling water, then strain it and immediately transfer it to a pot of the sauce over low heat, stirring to coat the pasta in the sauce. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, about a couple minutes more, depending on how watery and hot the sauce is (if it’s a thinner sauce and hotter, it will cook up faster; if it’s a thicker sauce or cooler in temperature, it will cook more slowly).
- If you’re incorporating pesto sauce into the pasta, the pesto should never be heated. Instead, strain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Toss together the cooked pasta and the pesto sauce, adding a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking liquid to the mixture. This helps emulsify the pesto. Toss until the pasta is just coated with the pesto sauce, and serve.
- Presentation-wise, you can form the perfect little baseball-sized mound of spaghetti (or any similar long and skinny pasta-type) by sticking a fork into the bowl of pasta, and then twisting it until the spaghetti has sufficiently wrapped itself into a nice and tidy little ball around the fork.
PARSLEY PESTO SPAGHETTI WITH ASPARAGUS AND CARAMELIZED SPRING ONIONS
Parsley Pesto (makes about 2 cups of pesto)
- 4 ounces walnuts, (about 1 cup)
- 3 cups fresh basil leaves
- 2 1/2 cups fresh parsley leaves
- 1 1/2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 4 wild caught anchovy filets stored in olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 teaspoon flake kosher salt
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Spaghetti with Asparagus and Caramelized Spring Onions
- 8 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 ounces spring onions thinly sliced, will make about 2 cups sliced
- 1 pound asparagus spears
- 1/2 teaspoon flake sea salt
- 1 pound Barilla spaghetti pasta
- 4 ounces snap peas cut into 1/2-inch wide slices
Toasted Garlic Breadcrumbs
- 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
- 1/2 teaspoon flake kosher sea salt
- 1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
For the Parsley Pesto, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread the walnuts out on a baking sheet and place it in the oven, toasting the walnuts until aromatic, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before placing them in the bowl of a food processor or blender along with the remaining pesto ingredients *except* the olive oil. If you're using a blender, remove the capped center of the blender lid to leave a small hole in the cap. Blend at low speed while adding the olive oil in a slow continuous drizzle. Blend until fairly smooth, about 1 to 2 minutes at medium low speed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the blender as-needed. Transfer to a large heat-safe bowl, press plastic wrap onto the top of the pesto so it touches, and set it aside.
Spaghetti with Asparagus and Caramelized Spring Onions
For the spaghetti with asparagus and caramelized spring onions, heat 4 teaspoons of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the spring onions, stir to coat in the oil, and reduce the heat to low. Continue cooking until the whites of the onions have turned very light gold, about 20 minutes, stirring every 3 to 5 minutes.
While they're cooking, you can prepare the toasted garlic breadcrumbs. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium low heat. Add the garlic and stir to coat in the oil. Continue cooking until softened, aromatic, and light gold around the edges. Add the breadcrumbs and salt and stir to combine. Spread out the breadcrumb mixture with the end of your spoon so that it covers the bottom of the pan evenly. Continue to cook until the breadcrumbs are toasted and deeply golden, about 1 to 2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds. Remove from heat, transfer the breadcrumb mixture to a wide shallow bowl, and allow to cool. Once cooled, toss in the chopped fresh parsley.
When the spring onions are done caramelizing, remove them from the pan with a spatula and set them aside in a medium bowl. Cut the cut last 1/3 off the bottoms of the asparagus spears and compost it. Cut the remainder into roughly 1-inch long pieces. Add the asparagus, salt, and remaining 4 teaspoons of olive oil to the same pan you cooked the spring onions in and stir to coat them in the oil. Raise the heat to medium and cook until the asparagus' skin is slightly wrinkled and lightly golden in some places, about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring every minute or two. Remove from heat and transfer the asparagus to the bowl with the caramelized spring onions.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil with a few generous pinches of salt. Add the spaghetti and cook according to the package directions. Instead of straining the pasta, remove the plastic wrap from the top of the pesto. Use spaghetti tongs to grasp the pasta and transfer it to the bowl with the pesto. Add a 1 to 3 tablespoons of the pasta cooking liquid to the mixture, as needed, and mix until the pasta is evenly coated in the sauce. Add the asparagus, caramelized spring onions, and snap peas and toss to combine. Serve alongside the breadcrumbs to be sprinkled atop each serving.