November 10, 2010 12:00 PM

6 BILLION

That’s the number of pounds of pasta Americans eat each year, according to the National Pasta Association, which works out to about 19.8 lbs. per person.

* THICK VS. THIN

Thin, delicate pastas like angel hair or thin spaghetti go best with light sauces. Thicker pasta shapes, like fettuccine, work well with chunkier, more robust sauces.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Serves: 4

Hands-on time: 5 min.

Total time: 25 min.

12 oz. fettuccine

4 tbsp. butter, cut into pieces

1 cup heavy cream

½ tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1½ tsp. chopped fresh sage or ½ tsp. dried

Grated Parmesan cheese

1. Cook fettuccine in a large Dutch oven according to package directions; drain.

2. Return pasta to Dutch oven; add butter and next four ingredients. Stir in ¾ cup Parmesan cheese; toss gently.

3. Stir in parsley and sage. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

Sausage Lasagna

Serves: 6

Hands-on time: 20 min.

Total time: 1 hr., 15 min.

1 lb. Italian sausage, casings removed

1 (26-oz.) jar spaghetti sauce with onions and roasted garlic

1 tbsp. chopped fresh basil

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

6 no-boil lasagna noodles

15 oz. ricotta cheese

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Cook sausage in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, stirring often until meat crumbles and is no longer pink; drain well. Wipe skillet clean; return meat to skillet.

3. Stir together sausage, spaghetti sauce, basil and pepper.

4. Spread 1/3 sausage mixture in a lightly greased 11- x 7-in. baking dish; top with 3 noodles, 1 cup ricotta cheese and 1 cup mozzarella cheese. Repeat layers once.

5. Top with remaining sausage mixture and Parmesan cheese. Cover and bake 40 min.; uncover and bake 10 min. or until bubbly and brown. Let stand 5 min. before serving.

* DRAIN, DON’T RINSE

The starch that clings to cooked pasta helps sauces stick. So just drain pasta and shake to remove excess liquid.

Three-Cheese Baked Ziti

Serves: 8 to 10

Hands-on time: 20 min.

Total time: 1 hr., 10 min.

1 (16-oz.) package ziti pasta

2 (10-oz.) containers refrigerated Alfredo sauce

1 (8-oz.) container sour cream

2 cups chopped, cooked chicken

15 oz. ricotta cheese

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Cook ziti according to package directions; drain and return to pot.

3. Stir together Alfredo sauce, sour cream and chicken; toss with ziti until evenly coated. Spoon half of ziti mixture into a lightly greased 13- x 9-in. baking dish.

4. Stir together ricotta cheese, eggs, Parmesan cheese and parsley; spread evenly over pasta mixture.

5. Spoon remaining pasta mixture evenly over ricotta cheese layer; sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.

6. Bake for 30 min. or until bubbly and brown. Let stand 5 min. before serving.

* FREEZING PASTA

Lasagnas and other baked pasta dishes are easy to make ahead and freeze. (They will keep for up to 6 months.) For best results, prepare the recipe and freeze it before baking. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then bake as the recipe directs.

Slow Cooker Spaghetti

Makes: about 3 quarts

Hands-on time: 15 min.

Total time: 6 hrs., 25 min.

2 lbs. lean ground beef

1 large onion, chopped

1 package spaghetti sauce seasoning mix

2 large cloves garlic, minced

3 (15-oz.) cans diced tomatoes

1 (15-oz.) can tomato sauce

1 (6-oz.) can tomato paste

1 (8-oz.) carton sliced mushrooms

2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 tbsp. Italian seasoning

1 tsp. each salt and sugar

½ tsp. dried crushed red pepper

Hot cooked spaghetti

Grated Parmesan cheese

1. Cook beef and onion in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until meat crumbles and is no longer pink; drain. Stir in sauce mix and garlic; saute 1 min.

2. Combine beef mixture and next nine ingredients in a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker. Cook, covered, on HIGH, 6 hrs. Serve over spaghetti; top with Parmesan cheese.

* MAKE IT AL DENTE

How to tell when the pasta is done? Taste it. Perfectly cooked pasta should be firm but tender, chewy not soggy.

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