Pasta a la Sofia
"Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti."
Veteran sex symbol Sofia Loren reveals how she maintains her spectacular figure
Is pasta a food for the health conscious?
In the red corner we have anti-carbohydrate campaigner Dr Robert Atkins whose best-selling books claim those who forsake pasta for deep-fried pork rinds will be favoured with glowing good health and slender thighs. Atkins also recommends using the rinds to scoop up caviar and as a substitute for toast, dinner rolls and pie crust.
In the blue corner we have pro-pasta Sofia Loren: Italian-born movie star; talented, charismatic, witty and wise; and still the bomb after more than a half century in the limelight.
Let me play referee. Atkins died aged 72. A report by the New York City medical examiner noted he had suffered from a heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. At the time of his death he weighed 258 pounds. Sofia Loren is to turn 72 this Septmeber, a milestone she's celebrating by posing wearing naught but a pair of diamond earrings for the Pirelli calendar (the tyre company's annual tribute to the world's most desirable women) .
I'll have what she's having, thank you very much.
Clearly, there's nothing like pasta to properly prepare one for posing nude or, in the Italian national soccer team's case, alluringly close to it. Five members of the World Cup-winning Azzurri did their country proud when they stripped to their Dolce & Gabbana smalls for the designers' 2006 underwear advertising campaign.
What do the boys eat to get themselves into such great shape? Suffice to say, if Italy had a national food emblem, it would be pasta not pork rinds. Many Italians eat pasta every day. Italy's obesity rate: 8.5 per cent. In the United States it's 31 per cent.
One of the world's leading nutrition researchers, Sydney University's Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, who's been at the forefront of glycemic index research for 25 years, is pro-pasta. But her support is conditional: "A pasta meal is very healthy if it uses vegetable or tomato sauce and/or accompaniments such as olive oil, fish and lean meat and small amounts of cheese. It is healthy because the fats are good -unsaturated - and the carbs are good - low GI - and you are getting lots of micronutrients from the accompaniments."
Glycemic index founder, University of Toronto's Professor David Jenkins, is also a pasta fan: "Pasta, with its dense compact structure, is a low-glycemic-index food. And it's even lower if it's eaten with beans, chick peas and other low-glycemic-index vegetables."
In accordance with the learned professors' guidelines, Pasta a la Sofia - fresh, light and incredibly satisfying - marries a modest portion of penne (2oz/60g uncooked is the recommended serving size) with green peas, arugula, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, lemon zest and a little pecorino. (If you're wondering what arugula is, you're probably in the United Kingdom or Australia, where it is often referred to as rocket or, in fancier establishments, roquette.)
I use fresh peas when they're available but frozen peas are a worthy substitute when they're not - or when I'm short on time and patience. If arugula's not your thing, baby spinach leaves work well. And, in the event you can't source pecorino cheese in your area it can be replaced with Parmesan.
To keep the glycemic index low, don't cook the pasta beyond al dente - that is, firm at the centre and slightly chewy. When overcooked, pasta's glycemic index value starts heading in the wrong direction.
A handy tip for preparing any cooked dish that, like this one, includes garlic: crush or finely chop the garlic before you do anything else. Garlic contains compounds that reduce the effects of carcinogens but heat can destroy its anti-cancer activity, according to researchers at Pennsylvania State University. But they also found if garlic is crushed and allowed to stand for 10 minutes before being cooked, its anti-cancer activity is preserved.
Pasta a la Sofia
Extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Zest of 1 small or 1/2 large lemon
1/2 cup frozen baby peas or freshly podded peas
Few generous handfuls arugula, roughly chopped
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1/2oz/15g pecorino cheese, freshly shaved or grated
Meanwhile, in a small pan, warm over a low-to-medium heat enough extra virgin olive oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan. Add chopped or crushed garlic and cook until the garlic turns slightly translucent, adding lemon zest just before removing the pan from heat.
When the pasta is cooked to al dente (and the peas piping hot), drain in a large colander, reserving a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Return pasta and peas to the saucepan, add the roughly chopped arugula and enough cooking water to moisten. Put the pan back over high heat and toss gently as the arugula wilts. Add the hot extra virgin olive oil, garlic and lemon zest mixture, and a squeeze of lemon juice, and briefly stir to combine.
Serve in a warm bowl garnished with shaved or grated pecorino.
Makes 1 portion.