Hurry up, Spring! Winter has hung around so long that even my family's favorite pasta supper is ho-hum. I've made salads, casseroles, and tossed pasta with everything. I knew somewhere in cyberspace there must be an exciting pasta recipe with my name on it, so I used multiple search engines to locate that "special" pasta. My Internet search yielded unexpected results. A simple word like pasta, interpreted by electronic helpers, offered humorous, nonessential information. I forgot about my recipe hunt when to my surprise I found that March is National Noodle Month. Who knew?
Later, while Skyping with my son in Beirut and making lighthearted conversation, I mentioned the surprising find and said that for all that noodling around I hadn't located a new recipe. He asked me if I knew what noodling was. I thought I was just morphing a word. If I were really noodling, according to him, I would stick my hands in a deep hole in a pond, wiggle my fingers, and wait for a catfish latch on to a finger. A musician friend told me that, to her, noodling is like a musical bridge or random notes that a musician plays on a piano or guitar while introducing a song.
I searched "noodling." It is a word with multiple definitions. When families noodle around, they are basically goofing around with no particular plan or purpose. The little bell rang in my head: When one of us did something reckless or made a decision that wasn't wise, my grandmother would say, "For goodness sake, use your noodle!" I searched noodle and sure enough it could mean brain.
Now obsessed by noodles, I was curious about the difference between noodles and pasta. Was it cultural? Could it be in the ingredients? In noodling around through websites, I located www.Ilovepasta.org. I had no idea that the National Pasta Association existed. The site offered every bit of information one might need including the fact that the first commercial pasta plant in America opened in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1848. I took delight in the next bit of obscure trivia: The National Pasta Association reports that in 2000, 1.3 million pounds of pasta were sold in America. There was more. If one were to line up 1.3 million 16-ounce boxes of spaghetti, the end-to-end boxes would circle the earth at the equator nearly nine times.
Eventually, I did locate a brief explanation of the difference between pasta and noodles. It seems, according to the National Pasta Association, that all noodles are pasta but not all pasta can be considered noodles.
I believed I was in recipe heaven as I could access hundreds of recipes. I clicked the link for types of pasta and what sauces best suit the pastas. There must have been dozens of varieties pasta, all organized alphabetically with pictures. I felt as if I were looking at a pasta field guide. The official name came first and then the common name. For example ditalini means "little thimbles," campanelle is "bells" and orcchiette means "little ears." I knew I had gone way over the noodling edge when I saw a picture of fusilli. My brain flipped the switch to an old "Seinfeld" episode when Kramer made a "Fusilli Jerry figure."
I came to macaroni and thought about "Yankee Doodle." He stuck a feather in his cap and called it - you got it - macaroni! Why would dear Mr. Doodle call a feather, macaroni? I learned from working in an 18th-century town that long ago macaroni was a delicacy among the very wealthy. Macaroni came to mean elegant and special.
Today many consider macaroni the flagship of blue collar pasta. However humble, macaroni serves as a favorite go-to craft material.
Is there a preschooler or kindergartner who has not made a macaroni paperweight? The old messy method involving macaroni glued to a big flat rock and brushed with tempera paint has faded to memory. During the wicked winter weather, one afternoon my four little buddies living next door trudged through the snow bearing a gift. They gave me a picture of their giant snowman in a frame decorated with colorfully dyed macaroni and other assorted pasta shapes.
Their mom gladly shared this secret for "less mess" pasta coloring. Measure a cup of dry pasta and place in a resealable pint freezer bag. Pour enough alcohol in the bag to cover the pasta.
Add a few drops of food coloring, carefully close the bag, and briefly massage the contents. The longer the pasta is in the mixture the more intense the color. Drain the pasta through a strainer into the sink.
Spoon the pasta on paper towel lined trays to dry. Alcohol evaporates quickly thus preventing the pasta from becoming sticky.
Placing the pans in a preheated oven at 225 degrees for about 15 minutes will speed the drying process. In the name of creative variety, she recommends kids choose different pastas. The two older boys prefer to combine colors to make "unique" combinations. Her other time-saving secret is watch for pasta sales, use entire boxes for batches of colored pasta, and store in airtight jars.
When someone is inspired to do a pasta project, such as the picture frame, the materials are ready.
Pasta's craft value exceeds decorating picture frames, rocks and candle rings. Stringing pasta is a good sick-in-bed activity.
A necklace or bracelet might turn out to be a work in progress. Keep the project self contained in a shoebox and the crafter can stop and start according to interest and energy level.
My kids strung garlands of mostaccioli, penne or rigatoni with seasonal shapes cut from construction paper placed at intervals between pastas. We used those one-of-a-kind garlands as table decorations, mantle decor and draped around window treatments.
OK - so I've spent time using my noodle, now I really must begin the search for an exciting pasta recipe!
Heidi Maness Hartwiger, a Wheeling native, is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She is the author of two books, "All Join Hands: The Forgotten Art of Playing With Children" and "A Gift of Herbs." She is a mother of four and a grandmother of five.