Full disclosure: We have perhaps an unwarranted bias against shell-shaped pastas of any kind. Not because we don't enjoy them when someone else is doing the cooking -- they are great for catching sauce -- but because shells don't seem to like us. Half the time we boil them (yes, in a huge pot of water with plenty of salt), they cling together so tightly we might as well be eating raw dough. Those little handmade ear-shaped orecchiette also tend to be pricey, and we prefer to keep from washing our money down the drain. But when we spied a box of imported orecchiette for $1.50 (!) at Trader Joe's recently, we grabbed it. Will this be our affordable shell-shaped pasta savior?
To clarify: This isn't the TJ's $1-per-bag basic pasta brand that won the spaghetti taste test in New York Magazine against high-priced imports a few years ago. It is, from what we understand, their fairly new "high-end" import label that in TJ's lingo means it sells for a few pennies more.
When we opened the bag, we were a bit wary of the pasta because our "ears" didn't have those raised grooves, as orecchiette should. These were smooth, and so we presume machine made (the word "handmade" was nowhere to be found). We prepped our simple sauce ingredients and fired up a big pot of well-salted water. Easy enough, but things went downhill quickly. After a few stirs in the pot, the pasta still began to stick together. Suffice it to say our beautifully delicate farmers market peas and pea shoots were wedged among what had become pasta torpedoes -- a half dozen little "ears" nestled so tightly together there was no chance of prying them apart.
And so we emailed Lucques chef Suzanne Goin, as our pasta was a riff on an orecchiette carbonara with spring peas in her Sunday Suppers at Lucques cookbook. Did she have any tips? Of course she did: Buy good (a.k.a. expensive) pasta.
At home, Goin prefers Rustichella D'Abruzzo. "I do love it," she told us. It's shaped by hand and allowed to dry for two days, hence the $8 price tag.
Other tips from Goin? Always make sure you have a "good amount" of sauce "stuff" in the pan before you toss in your shells, and "toss very well to coat the pasta but also to break up the cupping factor." She also reminds us to sauce that pasta right away, don't wait, and add a little pasta water to help loosen up those overly friendly little orecchiette too. All things that the home cooks among us know very well by now, so we can only presume it had to be the pasta.
Moral of the shell story: If you're splurging on fresh ingredients, or you simply don't want to eat a torpedo, don't skimp on the dried pasta. Think of it this way. That $8 box breaks down to around $2 a serving, a bargain compared to $24 for a bowl of Scarpetta spaghetti. And you know, we're content to leave the perfectly plated Beverly Hills spaghetti to the Real Housewives and eat our chubby little orecchiette by the bowlful at home.