If you are Italian by descent, which I'm not, but I married one - then you will know that pasta is indigenous to Italy and the Italians. I grew up in England and never experienced much pasta, except when my mum would make Spaghetti alla Bolognese once in a while. My main starch was potatoes and I never would have believed that there were so many pastas in this world that make up wonderful regional dishes created by the awesome home cooks of Italy.
Pasta comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be handmade or you can purchase it fresh or in its dried form from your local market. You can toss it with a sauce, make it into a salad, layer it or roll it - just to give you a few ideas.
There are a couple of things to consider when choosing the correct pasta for a dish. If you're looking for a pasta where you are making a gravy (sauce,) then something with holes and crevices would be awesome, as the sauce coats and gets into the nooks and crannies of Gemelli, Conchiglie rigate (small shells,) rigatoni, Rotelle, rotini, tortiglioni - I could go on and on. Like I said, there are hundreds of shapes and sizes - here's just a few pictured below.
If you want to make a pasta salad then something solid such as cellantani, cavitappi, cavatelli and trofie are wonderful as they have a great bite to them - they make awesome cold salads.
After you have cooked your pasta, drain and run it over with cold water to stop it cooking. Drain well and add a little olive oil and toss it together to prevent it from sticking until you are ready to make your salad.
There are 2 ways to go when considering pasta - fresh or dried. I use dried most of the time as there is always a sale on pasta in my local grocery store and I just don't have the time to make it from scratch. Please bear in mind that that some brands (like the stores own) can cook up way too fast, they are tasteless and barely have any texture to them - but that's just my opinion and I believe you get what you pay for. So, I usually use DeCecco, Barilla and Colavito only because they have a great flavor and if the Italian merchants are selling them Im a buyer!
Cooking fresh or dried pasta starts out the same way by bringing a large pot of water to a boil over a high heat with the lid on. Placing a lid on the cooking pot will help the water come to a boil much faster. Depending on where you live the altitude can affect boiling point - it may take a while at high altitudes.
Cooking Fresh Pasta
Once the water comes to a boil add a good handful of kosher salt to the pot - be careful after doing so as the salt will create a furious rush of bubbles and steam (be careful of steam burns.) After adding the pasta to the water, gently stir to prevent it sticking together. Once the pasta starts floating - drain it immediately and serve. Fresh pasta only takes approximately 1 - 3 minutes to cook depending on which style you are using and floats when ready. Easy and fast!
Cooking Dried Pasta
The same applies to dried pasta - add the salt and bring the water back to a boil. Drop in your pasta and stir a couple of times within the first 2 minutes to prevent it sticking to itself. At this point, leave the lid off. Depending on what the package says, I always check halfway through the designated cooking time by removing a couple of pieces of pasta with a strainer and tasting it. If it still has a crunch to it then you are good for a little while.
The key to cooking al-dente (firm to the bite) pasta, which is the way it should be cooked, is to pay attention to it. This doesn't take long and it will be well worth it.
Cooking Pasta for a Casserole
If you are making a casserole like a traditional macaroni and cheese for example, instead of cooking the pasta al-dente, it should be cooked pre al-dente. Meaning that it should have some resistance to it - like that crunch I mentioned earlier. That way when you add cheese or pasta sauces to the casserole, the sauce will finish cooking the pasta and it will be perfect.