A master takes the mystery out of doing pasta

''Did you get something to eat?'' James Beard asked solicitously as each party guest stopped by to congratulate him on the publication of his latest book , ''Beard on Pasta.''

Cookbook-writing colleagues, friends, and the press eagerly passed the long butcher-block countertop in Mr. Beard's kitchen, were handed a plate of steaming pasta, and then selected from close to a dozen sauces to heap on top.

But Beard himself, dressed in jeans and a comfortable pullover, was quite relaxed. After all, this is his 20th cookbook, and he's not exactly a newcomer to entertaining.

''No sense in getting upset about having some friends over to eat,'' he explained to a friend who had just remarked upon his surprising calm amid 60 pasta-twirling guests.

Beard's new book is as much about having fun in the kitchen as it is about pasta.

''Consult your own taste and style and feel free to experiment,'' he says. ''Take chances. We Americans have been intimidated for far too long by other people's opinions of what we should eat.''

Beard observes that eating pasta is usually not a ''mannerly'' procedure, but who cares whether or not it's considered gauche to twirl your spaghetti on a spoon? If that's the way you feel most comfortable, then that's the way you should do it, he believes.

The dean of American cooking says that using a spoon is very convenient. ''With it you can capture the last cream-covered peas or prosciutto, the bottom-of-the-bowl spoonful of basil-flavored tomato sauce or capers in olive oil.''

''Pasta,'' says Beard, ''should be eaten with gusto.''

It is with gusto that he approaches the subject in his newest book, casting a wide net over the flour-and-water world of noodles to include such unusual recipes as Elizabeth Andoh's Japanese udon - kneaded by tiptoeing on the dough with your foot; bread noodles, made with yeast; pasta-stuffed roast chicken; and angel-hair pasta souffle. There are also recipes for six-yolk French noodles, potato gnocchi, and spatzle.

Almost all of Beard's appealing pasta dishes are briefly and easily accomplished, but if 10 minutes rather than half an hour is all the time you have to cook, he gives you a chapter called ''Small Saucings,'' which will inspire the creation of a tasty sauce from whatever you have on hand.

This book demystifies the subject of pasta and encourages you to feel confident about your judgment in the kitchen.

James Beard is not a purist when it comes to making pasta from scratch. If you don't feel inclined to make your own, there are many commercial brands that are very good, he says, especially the Italian De Cecco.

He is also realistic about prices. If you don't care to pay the price of Parmegiano Regiano, he suggests that you grate a fine domestic Cheddar or the less expensive Italian Caciocavallo.

''I refuse to accept that any cook (must) be bound by rules and restrictions, '' Beard says. ''Your taste is your only guideline, and the more you follow your taste, the better cook you're going to be.''

Here are some recipes from the new cookbook:

''In Italian, primavera means spring, and primavera sauce should be made with the first, tiny vegetables that pop out in the spring. In the winter, of course, you would use the freshest vegetables you could get at that time, but I've suggested a springtime combination that would be just delicious.

''Don't be formal about it. Use what you have in the garden or refrigerator. You can even cut up a couple of stalks of celery and add them for the bite.'' Pasta Primavera 1/2 cup fresh peas 1/2 cup tiny, new beans 1/2 cup sliced stalks thin asparagus 1/2 cup sliced mushrooms 4 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 cup light cream, warmed Lots of freshly ground black pepper 1 pound angel hair, linguine, or even orzo Grated Parmesan cheese

Lightly cook the peas, beans, asparagus, and mushrooms in the butter until everything is crisply tender. Add the cream and pepper and cook down briefly. Cook the pasta, drain it, and toss with the sauce. Sprinkle with lots of grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 4 to 6.

''This is a meat loaf that has tiny pasta shells scattered through it. The shells make a pattern like bits of tongue or pistachio nuts that are found in pate de campagne. They're fun, but if you can't find them try orzo, tubetti, funghini - any small, granular-shaped pasta. I've made this for years and years. It's a perfect dish to take on a picnic and slice on the spot. Hence the name.'' Beach Pate 4 ounces very small pasta 1 cup carrots, cut in 1-inch sections 2 medium onions 4 large cloves garlic 1/2 cup chopped parsley 2 teaspoons thyme 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 2 teaspoons salt 2 pounds beef round, chuck, or rump, ground twice 1 pound pork shoulder, ground twice 1 cup fresh bread crumbs 2 eggs, lightly beaten 6 strips bacon

Cook and drain the pasta. Put carrots, onions, garlic, parsley, thyme, pepper , and salt in the food processor and process 30 seconds until they are well mixed.

Turn this mixture into a large bowl and add the meats, crumbs, eggs, and pasta shells.

I like to use my hands for this job, but if you are squeamish, use wooden spoons. Form the meat mixture into a firm oval loaf.

Make a bed in a shallow baking pan with 3 bacon strips. Place the meat loaf on the bacon, and put the remaining strips across the top. Bake in a 350-degree F. oven 1 1/2 hours, and serve hot or cold. If you make your meat loaf free-form instead of in a loaf pan, you'll get a firmer texture for slicing and plenty of flavorful outer crust. Serves 8.

''When this souffle rises, it lifts the very thin strands of pasta and bits of prosciutto with it. Use your imagination when you pick the cheese. I've suggested Cheddar, Gruyere, or Parmesan, all of which have good character and melting qualities. But you might want to try a fresh mozzarella or delicate Fontina instead.'' Angel-Hair Souffle 4 ounces angel-hair pasta 6 egg yolks 3/4 cup shredded Cheddar, Parmesan, or Gruyere cheese 3/4 cup finely diced prosciutto 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/8 teaspoon Tabasco 8 egg whites

Cook and drain the pasta.

Put egg yolks in mixer bowl and beat until thick and butter-colored, as long as 5 minutes. Stir in the cheese, prosciutto, pepper, Tabasco, and cooked pasta.

In another bowl, beat egg whites until they form soft peaks that just bend over. Stir a large spoonful of the white into the yolk mixture, then fold in remaining egg whites gently but thoroughly, using a rubber spatula.

Pour mixture into buttered 2-quart souffle dish and smooth top with spatula. Draw a circle with a finger on the top of the souffle about 2 inches from the rim. This will make the center rise higher than the sides to form a cap.

Bake in the center of a preheated 375-degree F. oven 15 to 20 minutes. Serves 4.

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