Attention tailgaters: April is National Noodle Month. OK, maybe it was March and we’re just now clearing the decks, but no matter, there are many tasty and easy-to-make noodle dishes that can easily be incorporated into an upcoming tailgate event.
Noodles and pasta have much in common, but to be classified as a noodle, the dough must contain 5.5 percent egg solids. Noodles are formed of unleavened dough, typically wheat, rice or buckwheat although oddities like acorn meal, mung beans and potato starch sometimes are used. Once the dough is rolled out it is cut, often into strings a la spaghetti, but also into a huge variety of shapes including the little alphabet letters you might remember floating in your soup when you were young, orecchitte, meaning “little ears”; fiori, flower-shaped and farfalle, shaped like a butterfly or bowtie. The word noodle derives from the German nudel.
The basic noodle is the soft variety that is cooked in water and drained. Pasta sauce can be added. Chilled noodles can be served in a salad or, as they are in Japan, served cold with a dipping sauce. Fried noodles include dishes where the noodles are stir fried with meat, seafood or vegetables as found in Chinese lo mein, Thai pad thai and others. Noodles in soup are the familiar chicken or beef noodle soup; ramen; spatzle, a German pasta made with wheat and eggs; udon which are thick Japanese noodles usually served in a broth and other variations around the globe. Noodle casseroles like lasagna are good tailgate fodder if you can figure out a way to keep the dish warm. Pastitsio, the Greek dish, and kugel are other types of noodle casseroles. Modern culture gave rise to instant noodles, the student staple. Four thousand year old noodles—said to be well- preserved– were found at an archeological site in China. The story about Marco Polo bringing pasta to Italy and thereby beginning the Italian pasta cycle is entirely apocryphal.
How nutritious noodles are depends on what type of wheat or rice was used to make them as well as how they were made. Basically, noodles are a complex carbohydrate and provide energy for a long time which is why noodles and pasta are often eaten by marathon runners the night before the race. As noodles and noodle dishes are high on the list of most peoples’ comfort foods, U.S. noodle consumption spikes in the cold weather months of January, February and March when we turn to chicken noodle soup to sooth a cold, a delicious plate of spaghetti or that childhood staple, mac and cheese, currently very in vogue.
Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing macaroni to the United States after eating something like it in Europe while serving as the U.S. ambassador to France. He ordered crates of macaroni, along with a pasta-making machine, sent back to the United States.
In addition to their versatility in the bowl or on the plate, noodles figure heavily in arts and crafts, especially those for kids. If you have little tailgaters, suggest they color some noodles and paste them on a paper plate to help celebrate the occasion. If you want to celebrate in a more adult fashion, try this recipe for great lasagna, courtesy of the old, but terrific in its way, I Hate to Cook Book by the late Peg Bracken:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 pound ground beef, crumbled.
8 ounce can tomato sauce
1 No. 2 can tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
one-half teaspoon ground pepper
one-half teaspoon oregano
8 ounces lasagna noodles
one-half pound mozzarella, sliced thin
1 pound ricotta cheese
one-half cup grated Parmesan cheese
Sauté the ground beef and garlic in the oil, then add the tomato sauce, tomatoes, salt, pepper and oregano and simmer twenty minutes. While sauce simmers, cook noodles in boiling salted water (read package for time) and drain well. (I usually run hot water over each noodle as I separate it to place into the casserole.)
Butter a 9-inch by 13-inch casserole. Place a layer of noodles, then a layer of cheese (about a third of the ricotta topped with mozzarella with Parmesan sprinkled on top of the mozzarella) and finally a layer of the meat sauce. Make two more layers in the same order, ending with a layer of sauce and Parmesan. (If you have extra mozzarella, add that on top under the Parmesan.)
Bake uncovered at 375 for 20 minutes.
To freeze, cover with foil. Be sure to defrost the dish 24 hours before you plan to serve. Reheat until lasagna is bubbling, covering the top with foil if it starts to get brown.