Spring for pasta - but hold the tomato sauce

Pasta sustains whole countries and, along with pizza, fuels countless thousands of American college students. It's as universal as the stars, a vehicle for hundreds of sauces and fillings, and it comes in more sizes and shapes than '60s hairdos. Italy claims more than 300 pasta varieties, an estimate some consider conservative.

Although humble by nature, pasta can be elevated to sublime heights. In the United States, it's too often overcooked, drowned in some prepared, commercial, tomato-based sauce, dumped unceremoniously onto a cold plate, and then dusted with that unmentionable grated cheese that comes in a green cylinder shaker. Sawdust would be an improvement.

We should take a lesson from our Italian friends. They treat their pasta with respect.

Usually served as a separate course before the main meal, it is always cooked al dente ("to the tooth"), dressed modestly with sauce, and - when Parmesan cheese is called for - even more modestly dressed with the king of Italian cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cow's milk cheese from Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. Other, American cheeses that claim the Parmesan moniker are weak imitations.

A few hints: Pasta should be cooked, uncovered, in copious amounts of salted water and brought to a rolling boil. It may be cooked ahead of time, as many restaurants do, drained, and then reheated for 30 seconds or so in boiling water.

Oil in the cooking water coats the pasta, thus preventing it from absorbing the sauce.

Serve pasta in bowls, rather than dishes, to help keep it hot. If possible, heat the bowls beforehand. Pasta should be eaten with a fork only. Spoons are an unnecessary pretension, something you would never see an Italian use. Knives and pasta do not go together.

Although Italians are particular about exactly what pasta shape and size should go with what particular sauce, odd shapes can add visual interest to a dish.

The general rule: The chunkier and more robust the sauce, the bolder the pasta shape.

The recipes at left are deliberately missing one ingredient: tomato sauce. There is no law that says tomato sauce has to be served over pasta. The two we've included are made with olive oil and other simple, fresh ingredients.

Pasta Primavera

Primavera means "spring" in Italian. What better way to celebrate than with a dish full of the color and promise the season portends? Proportions are not critical. Feel free to add, subtract, or substitute. Try small broccoli and cauliflower florets, or diced bell peppers, even spinach or kale. Let your imagination be your guide.

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 cup fresh asparagus tips, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
1 small yellow summer squash, diced (about 3/4 cup)
Two dozen or so fresh snow peas
4 scallions, trimmed and cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 pound penne or ziti pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
12 basil leaves, chopped (optional)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a fast boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add thyme and carrot to the medium pot, and cook 3 minutes. Add asparagus, summer squash, snow peas, scallions, and tomatoes. Cook another minute. Turn off heat; set aside.

Cook pasta in boiling water according to directions on the package and drain. Drain vegetables and toss with olive oil and pepper. Add vegetables to pasta, toss lightly with grated cheese and basil (optional). Serves 4 to 6.

Pasta with bread crumbs, garlic, and golden raisins

This may sound like a bad dream. But it's surprisingly delicious and a classic in southern Italy.

1 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 cup dried bread crumbs (seasoned Italian ones, perhaps)
1 pound spaghetti or vermicelli
Chopped parsley for garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta. Put raisins in a small bowl and cover with hot water to plump, about 15 minutes.

Pour oil in heavy skillet. When hot, add garlic cloves. Sauté, turning and pressing them with a spoon. Cook until cloves begin to brown. Remove garlic and discard. Add bread crumbs and stir often while toasting. Cook until golden brown. Drain raisins and add to bread crumbs; turn off heat.

Cook pasta according to directions. Drain. Add bread crumb-raisin mixture; toss lightly. Serve in individual bowls, and garnish with chopped parsley if desired. Serves 4 to 6.

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