5 Tips for Cooking Perfect Pasta

Let's talk pasta! Last month, I visited Chicago for the first time. It was a quick trip--actually quicker than I initially anticipated (thanks, stormy weather!)--but it was still an awesome trip because I got to visit the headquarters of Barilla, with whom I'm partnering this fall to create easy pasta recipes with a Latin twist.

[I'm also super excited to be sharing spokesperson duties with two of my favorite blogger ladies--Nicole of Presley's Pantry, and Laura of Las Recetas de Laura!]

It's kind of a perfect project for me since pasta has always been an important part of my food life for as long as I can remember.

Growing up in a predominantly Italian New Jersey town just 20 minutes outside of New York City, dinners out usually meant Italian--from the local casual red sauce spots to the more elegant restaurants across the bridge, we ate pasta just as often (if not more!) than we ate Puerto Rican food.

The conference rooms at Barilla all have pasta-related names!
In fact, whenever my mom needed a quick meal that satisfied all of us without complaint, she almost always reached for one of the pasta boxes she kept stocked in the pantry, turning out recipes that combined those traditional pasta shapes with the Latin flavors and ingredients she grew up with.

A regular at dinnertime was something she called "Puerto Rican Spaghetti," which was (let's be honest here) really just normal spaghetti with a few Latin spices tossed in, but which kind of exemplified the beauty of the immigrant experience in the US--bringing together different cultural traditions to create something new (and delicious!).

My love for Italian food was also one of the main reasons I moved to Florence when I was 21 to attend culinary school. I wanted to learn as much as I could about cooking in the country known for some of the best food in the world.

As a busy student with limited funds, we ate pasta just about every single day--popping into a tiny lunch spot for a daily €10 special that featured a bowl of pasta (the simple, but luscious, carbonara was my favorite!) with a glass of house wine and a small dessert.

Pasta played such a huge role in the food I ate growing up, that I was really surprised to learn that it's actually not the case for other Latino families in the US. And that's why I'm excited for this opportunity to show how pasta can be an amazing vehicle for sharing our individual traditions in a new and creative way.

While in Chicago, my fellow blogger ladies and I spent most of our day at the Barilla test kitchen, learning pasta cooking techniques from Chef Lorenzo Boni, the Executive Chef of Barilla America, and Mexican Chef Carlos Gaytan (whom you might know from Top Chef!).

While there, we also learned some great tips for cooking perfect pasta dishes that I definitely have to share with you:

1. Al Dente Pasta is Healthier Pasta 
You might already know that pasta tastes better when it is cooked al dente, an Italian phrase that means the pasta is not mushy and still has a bit of bite to it, but another benefit is that when cooked this way, the pasta has a lower GI that allows your body to better digest and use the healthy carbs without spiking your blood sugar.  

2. Finish the Pasta in the Sauce 
All Barilla pasta boxes come with suggested cook times for each individual shape. Chef Lorenzo recommended always taking the pasta out of the water 2-3 minutes before the recommended time, and then finishing it in a pan with the sauce--whether bottled or homemade. This way, the hot pasta combines evenly with the sauce, and you end up with a perfectly balanced dish.  

3. Use a Big Pot with Enough Water 
The number one mistake most people make at home when cooking pasta is not using enough water. We try to cram it all into a small pot, but this causes the pasta to stick and cook unevenly. To prevent this, pull out your biggest pot and fill it up with water. A good rule of thumb to remember is a minimum of 1 gallon (4 quarts) of water per 1 pound box of pasta.

4. Don't Add Oil to Your Pasta Water 
Some people think adding oil to pasta water will keep the pasta from sticking, but in fact, the oil doesn't affect the pasta in any way. If you remember from science class, oil and water do not mix, so the oil will always just float on the top of the water, and then rinse away when you drain the pot. (Extra bonus? If you use Barilla pasta, you actually don't even have to worry about the sticking since it's specially formulated to not get clumpy when you cook it--total win!)  

5. Do Add Plenty of Salt 
One of the most important (and easiest!) tips for the best tasting pasta dishes is to salt your cooking water generously. Adding 1-2 tablespoons of salt per gallon of water will season the pasta perfectly and evenly as it boils so that it already tastes amazing even before you add it to the sauce. My own favorite way to remember this is to taste the water before adding the pasta and checking to see if it's salty like the sea. If so, then you're good to go. If not, add more! Chef Lorenzo also recommends always using sea salt because the minerals add a little bit of extra flavor.
Do you have a favorite tip for cooking perfect pasta? Or do you ever combine pasta with flavors you grew up with? Let me know in the comments below! And stay tuned for more tips and recipes featuring Barilla pasta over the coming months.

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Barilla, however, my opinions are entirely my own and I have not been paid to publish positive sentiments towards Barilla or their products. Thanks for supporting companies like Barilla who make it possible for me to keep creating great original content and recipes for you!

Arroz con Leche Marshmallow Treats

Growing up in a Puerto Rican family, Latin desserts were a BIG part of my childhood. Buttery pastries filled with guava paste, coconut tembleque (a delicious creamy, jiggly, jello-like treat), red sesame lollipops, and arroz con leche.

Arroz con leche is basically a Latin American version of rice pudding, scented with vanilla, citrus zest, and plenty of canela--also known as Ceylon cinnamon--which is warmer and less spicy than typical grocery store cinnamon. Depending on who makes it, the recipe will also include additions like rum-soaked raisins or toasted coconut, and is sometimes served topped with swirls of dulce de leche.

The scent of this creamy pudding, never fails to bring up nostalgic memories, so when I was asked by Target's A Bullseye View magazine to create a Latin-inspired dessert recipe that parents could send via mail to their kids who are away at college, I knew exactly what I wanted to do!

Clearly, rice pudding is not something anyone should be shipping through the mail, but rice cereal marshmallow treats? Totally care package-friendly!

Hence these easy Arroz con Leche Marshmallow Treats, which have all the same nostalgic flavors in a portable (and shareable!) bite.

Made with nutty brown butter, cinnamon, orange zest, raisins, and toasted coconuts, these marshmallow treats are out of this world!

To ship them, wait until cool, then cut and pack them tightly in a double-layer of plastic wrap.

Be sure to also include a note that suggests the recipient warm them up a bit before eating. A quick 15 seconds in the dorm room microwave is all you need to make them soft and gooey--just like they came right off the stove!

This recipe was sponsored by Target and can also be viewed on Target's A Bullseye View magazine. All opinions are my own. Thank you for sponsoring seriously awesome companies like Target who make it possible for me to create great content for you!

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Arroz con Leche Marshmallow Treats
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup raisins
1/3 cup toasted coconut flakes
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon + more for garnish
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh orange zest
1 10oz bag mini marshmallows (about 4 cups)
6 cups crisped rice cereal (such as Rice Krispies)

Generously grease a 9-inch baking pan with baking spray or butter and set aside.

In a large pot over low heat, melt butter completely, then continue to cook for 3-4 minutes, allowing the butter to brown slightly until golden, nutty, and fragrant.

Add the raisins, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange, and toss to coat well in the warm butter.

Add the marshmallows and stir gently until completely melted, and everything is combined.

Remove from heat, and stir in the cereal, stirring until completely coated. Spread mixture in prepared pan, and use a spatula or lightly oiled finger tips to flatten it out evenly. Sprinkle top with additional cinnamon.

Let cool 5 minutes, then turn over onto board and let cool completely before cutting into 12 pieces.

Crock-pot Country Style Ribs with Grapes

The first time I made this sweet and savory rib recipe, I accidentally set off the fire alarm with the smoke from the browning meat. I was in a country house in upstate NY that instantly notified the local fire department, and so it wasn't long before a big red truck full of burly firefighters arrived at our door. They were very nice about the whole thing, and spent perhaps a few too many minutes lingering around the kitchen checking out the food.

"Feel free to set off the alarm again once that's ready to eat," they joked.

The next few times, the meal went off without incident; likely because I cut out the step requiring the ribs to be browned in hot fat before going into the slow cooker. After testing it both ways, I realized that I could skip it completely without really losing any flavor, all the while saving tons of time and clean-up. Total win!

This really is one of my favorite slow cooker recipes. Everything goes into the pot, is set on low for 8 hours, and is ready to eat. The fresh grapes are delicious after stewing in the red wine and broth for a few hours, and add a really lovely burst of sweetness to the dish. If you've never tried cooking with grapes, I think you'll be surprised!

I served this over a bed of creamy polenta, but pasta, rice, mashed potatoes or even a simple salad would also be a welcome side to complete the dish.

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Crock-pot Country Style Ribs with Grapes and Red Wine
Serves 6

5lbs bone-in country style pork ribs OR 3 1/2- 4lbs boneless
1 bottle dry red wine (such as Cabernet Sauvignon)
2 cups beef broth
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 large Spanish onion, peeled and quartered
3 cups seedless red or black grapes
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/4 fresh sage leaves
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt

Combine all the ingredients in the slow cooker and stir to combine. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours.

Once done cooking, stir and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Serve with your favorite side.

Turkish Molasses Tahini Dip

A couple days ago, my friend Olga shared a link on Facebook to a post about everyday life in Istanbul. The article was part of a series from the blog A Cup of Jo, where she interviews mothers who are raising their children outside of the US. In it, the mother described a typical Turkish breakfast, which consists of a variety of items including warm breads, cheeses, clotted cream with honey, cucumbers, olives, and (most notably) a spread made from molasses and tahini.

I had both tahini and molasses in my pantry, so I popped into my kitchen and combined a few teaspoons of each to test it out.

I was blown away!

The creamy nuttiness of the tahini (a sesame spread similar to a nut butter that's often used in hummus) went beautifully with the dark, rich sweetness of the molasses. I seasoned it with a bit of sea salt and added a dash of cayenne for heat, then served it with salty crackers.

I absolutely love this new spread and am excited to use it in new ways. Thinned with a bit of warm water, I bet it would be beautiful drizzled over strawberries. It would also be incredible on warm toast or an english muffin as a pre-workout snack.

I can even see it as a thin layer in a cake!

Seriously so many possibilities here!

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Turkish Molasses Tahini Dip
Makes 1 cup

1 cup Tahini
2 tablespoons molasses (if you don't have or like molasses, a dark honey or maple syrup would work well, too)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne (optional)

Combine all ingredients and whisk until smooth. If too thick, try warming it up slightly on the stove or a microwave until it stirs easily.
Feel free to adjust with a bit more molasses for a sweeter, richer flavor.

One-Bowl Cherry Chocolate Cake

I think I was shocked the first time I learned that not everyone loves chocolate-covered cherries as much as I do. To me, they just are the ultimate flavor--the tart burst of cherry, almond-like liqueur, and rich dark chocolate all around it.

Seriously, what's not to love?!

But for some reason there are people who are just not fans. And you know what I say to that?

More for me!

(And for you, if you love them, too!)

This past weekend, Eugene and I drove to my parents' house in New Jersey to celebrate their anniversary with a casual bbq in their backyard. My dad asked me to bring some baked goods, so I decided to play around with those cherry and chocolate flavors that I love, and made this cake.

The combination of rich dark chocolate cake with a layer of fresh cherries baked right in is absolutely perfect! Pure almond extract added to the batter plays up those "cherry liqueur" notes. If you love chocolate-covered cherry candies, you will ADORE this cake.

A few things to note about the cake. This calls for Dutched cocoa, which is different than regular cocoa as it has been alkalized. It also has a richer almost Oreo-cookie-like flavor. Definitely don't skip it!

The cherries in this cake are fresh cherries. You want something like Bing cherries. Please do NOT use candied or jarred cherries--those will be way too sweet. It's all about that combo of tart and sweet here.

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One Bowl Cherry Chocolate Cake
Makes 1 9-inch cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated white sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 cup plain yogurt (not Greek-style)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Dutch cocoa powder (do not use natural cocoa)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups fresh cherries, pitted and stemmed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9" springform pan and set aside.

In base of electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). Add the egg and beat additional 3 minutes. Add the yogurt, vanilla, and almond.

Balance a mesh sieve over the bowl with the wet ingredients and pour in flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Sift dry ingredients into the chocolate base, and then stir until completely incorporated.

Pour batter into prepared pan, spreading out evenly. Top with cherries (it's ok if they layer on top of each other--they will sink during baking).

Bake about 65 minutes or until a tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Let cool in pan for 10 minutes before removing sides and transferring to a rack to cool completely.

Blueberry Chocolate Espresso Sorbet

Berries and chocolate have long been an amazing combination (hello chocolate-covered strawberries!), and the combo is no less awesome when turned into a smooth and cool sorbet.
This Blueberry Chocolate Espresso Sorbet is the ultimate summer treat, with a killer combination of bright berries, rich cocoa, and just a hint of jolt from espresso.

I know you might think espresso seems like a weird addition, but trust me...it just works!

A bit of vodka in the recipe will keep the sorbet lovely and scoopable, but if you prefer, you can absolute skip it (though it will then be a bit harder to scoop after the first day).

I love pairing this with rich dark chocolate brownies and a handful of fresh blueberries on top.


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Blueberry Chocolate Espresso Sorbet

1 pint blueberries
1/2 cup water
2 1/2 cups espresso
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ripe banana
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon vodka
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine the blueberries and 1/2 cup water over medium heat. Let simmer until the berries burst and become syrupy (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and let cool.

In a separate saucepan, combine the espresso, sugar, cocoa powder, and chocolate chips. Let simmer, stirring occasionally until sugar and chocolate are melted.

Pour coffee mixture into a blender with banana, vanilla, vodka, and salt, and puree until very smooth. Cover, and chill at least 4 hours or overnight until very cold.

Pour chilled mixture into your ice cream maker, and churn as directed. 5 minutes before end of churn, add the cooked blueberries. Transfer to a container, cover, and freeze at least 4-6 hours until set.

English Pea, Strawberry & Feta Salad with Minty Lime Vinaigrette

During the summer, all I want to do is eat color. The brighter and fresher, the better. I stock my fridge with as much produce as it can hold, and then stand back to admire it.

(Seriously. My phone and instagram are full of snapshots of the inside of my refrigerator on grocery day.)

This gorgeous Pea, Strawberry & Feta Salad is one of the dishes I served while up in Vermont this past month, and it just screams warm weather days to me.

It's a surprising, but delicious combination that is incredibly easy to put together. The peas are blanched slightly (either fresh or frozen will work!), then tossed with strawberries and crumbled feta. The dressing, made with lime juice, fresh mint, and a little honey--is the perfect companion to this dish, which happily straddles the place between salad and side.

If serving this for a crowd, I would recommend making the dressing separate, then adding it just about 10 or so minutes before serving to keep all the colors bright and fresh.

While I kept it as-is, if you'd like to bulk the salad out a bit, handfuls of fresh spinach or peppery arugula would be a nice addition.

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English Pea, Strawberry & Feta Salad with Minty Lime Vinaigrette
Serves 4

1 pound english peas (fresh or frozen)
1 pound strawberries, hulled and quartered
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, minced + more for garnish
Kosher salt, black pepper

Boil peas 2-3 minutes, or until tender. Drain and rinse with cold water, then place in a large bowl. Add the strawberries and feta.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together lime juice, olive oil, mint, salt, and pepper.

Just before serving, add the dressing to the salad and toss to coat. Garnish with additional mint leaves.

Roasted Strawberries with Balsamic Glaze

One of my favorite things about cooking for large groups is that it forces me to be creative. The groups that I serve generally have varied dietary restrictions and preferences, so I do my best to create recipes that will work for a maximum number of people.

That's how this simple dish of Roasted Strawberries with Balsamic Glaze came about. I needed to figure out a dessert that would work for folks who are gluten-free, vegan, and avoiding refined sugar.

I took fresh berries, removed the stems (but left them otherwise whole so as to keep the juices in the berry), and placed them in a baking dish. 20 minutes in the oven was all they needed to become plump and tender. I then drizzled them with a simple balsamic reduction (made while the berries roasted), and served.

They were glorious, so quick and simple. The non-vegans enjoyed them over some ice cream, while those who could eat wheat crumbled in cookies. You can also layer this over yogurt or pound cake, or serve topped with a dollop of whipped cream. Really so many possibilities from such a simple dish.

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Roasted Strawberries with Balsamic Glaze
Serves 4

1 teaspoon coconut oil
1 1/2 pounds strawberries, stems removed (but not hulled)
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, cut into a chiffonade

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a ceramic baking dish with coconut oil, and arrange the berries a single layer. Roast 20 minutes, or until berries are tender.

While berries roast, place balsamic in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to a simmer. Let simmer about 5 minutes, or until vinegar has reduced by half into a thick syrup. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

When berries are ready, use a spoon to drizzle with balsamic glaze. Sprinkle with mint leaves and serve hot.