Use your noodle
How to keep pasta dishes simple but satisfying
Plain pasta might seem basic, but in my house, it's fundamental.
With just a handful of ingredients — pasta, salt, Parmesan cheese and butter — I can make one of the comfort foods of my childhood. With just a few more ingredients — roasted vegetables, sauteed greens, feta cheese, fresh basil, caramelized onions — I can make a simple, easily customizable weeknight dinner that's reliably quick and delicious.
My love of plain pasta started out of pickiness. As a young eater averse to big flavors, I hated red sauce. Marinara was the recurring nightmare, popping up on pizza, alongside breadsticks or spooned on top of a mountain of spaghetti. For nearly two decades, I ate pasta without a drop of sauce, unless it was a creamy fettuccine alfredo. Eventually, as with most finickiness from childhood, my palate warmed up to the acidity and umami of tomatoes that were cooked down to a sweet, salty and tangy sauce. I finally understood the appeal of pasta coated in something other than butter and "sprinkle cheese," our name for Kraft's green canister of Parmesan cheese.
Thanks to a couple of trips to Italy in college, I grew to love creamy and tomato-based sauces, especially Bolognese, and for a while refused to buy the shelf-stable powdery Parmesan. But now that I'm feeding two kids with their own varied palates, I've rediscovered the joys of simple pasta dishes, and the plastic container of everyday store-bought Parm is back.
These kinds of dishes are quick, with few ingredients and few dirty pots and pans. But they're anything but ordinary: orecchiette tossed with a mix of sausage and sauteed kale, bucatini with roasted Brussels sprouts and pancetta, bow ties with feta cheese and caramelized onions. And when I make a rigatoni with, say, goat cheese and steamed broccoli, I know that one of my kids will rejoice at the mixture of flavors while the other, who doesn't love overlapping ingredients, can still eat the components of the meal.
It's nice to see so many cookbook authors celebrating simple but not-so-basic pasta in their books. Carla Snyder developed a one-pot recipe with bow ties, shrimp, spinach and feta; the pasta cooks in vegetable broth along with the other ingredients, which amplifies the flavor in the dish. The U.K.-based authors of the "Leon" series, Rebecca Seal and John Vincent, cook a similar dish with bacon and mushrooms in a single pot.
Pam Anderson, the author of the newly revised "How to Cook Without a Book," works in recipe formulas, so you can adapt it based on which kinds of vegetables, fats and flavorings you want to use. And from "The Long and Short of Pasta" by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi, you'll find a classic cacio e pepe made by letting the water reduce while cooking the pasta.
When cooking simple pasta dishes, here are some tips to keep things easy and efficient:
- Salt the water, but don't add oil. Add several good pinches of salt to the water after it is boiling. A large pot of water needs about a tablespoon of salt.
- Stir the pasta after you put it in the water. This is when the pasta is more likely to stick together.
- Don't overcook the pasta. Mushy pasta doesn't hold up well in dishes like these, but softer vegetables, such as sauteed zucchini or eggplant, can pair well with al dente pasta.
- Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of pasta water. (Many of these recipes call for cooking the pasta in a reduced quantity of water, so you would not want to drain the remaining liquid in those instances.) You can deglaze a pan full of sauteed vegetables with this water or simply splash on after you've returned the pasta to the pot.
- Don't rinse the pasta. You want the pasta to absorb that splash of starchy pasta water or olive oil that you are about to toss it in. Wait until you've mixed in the vegetables or served the vegetables on top, and then add a little pasta water or a drizzle of high quality olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.
- A spoonful of pesto or bright green spicy doña sauce goes a long way to season a pot of pasta and vegetables. Nuts can add texture. Herbs can add freshness. Chile flakes, lemon juice and avocado can awaken the plainest bowl of spaghetti.
- Got leftovers? Put an egg on it and call it breakfast.
One-Pan Bacon and Mushroom Pasta
Oyster or shiitake mushrooms work well here, and you could cook so many vegetables instead of the mushrooms. And if you want to take a page from Cal Peternell's new book, "Almonds, Anchovies, and Pancetta," you could swap out the bacon for almonds, Parmesan or anchovies, which can each add a fingerprint of umami and texture to any dish. Cooking the pasta in the same pan allows the ingredients to flavor the pasta and the pasta's starch to thicken the pasta water to make the sauce.
— Addie Broyles
A pat of butter or a splash of olive oil
3 1/2 ounces smoked back bacon or pancetta, finely chopped
7 ounces mixed mushrooms, torn into bite-size pieces
8 ounces medium pasta shapes, such as rigatoni or fusilli
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
2 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves only
Freshly ground black pepper
Use a large, wide saute pan with a lid. Set it over medium heat and add the butter or olive oil. When hot, add the bacon or pancetta and saute until crisp, stirring often so that it doesn't stick or burn.
Add the mushrooms to the pan and saute until golden. Lift the mushrooms and bacon out of the pan and set to one side. Add 2 cups boiling water, which will take on some color from the pan, bring to a simmer and then add the pasta.
Cover and simmer for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the pasta from sticking. Remove the lid and increase the heat to reduce the liquid, stirring often. After a couple of minutes, or once the pasta is al dente, remove from the heat. There should now be a little liquid left, just a silky reduction of pasta water. Return the mushrooms and bacon to the pan and add the chives and thyme along with a generous mound of freshly ground black pepper. (Taste to check, but because of the bacon, you almost certainly won't need salt.) Stir well to let the flavors marry, and serve immediately.
— From "Leon Happy One-Pot Cooking" by Rebecca Seal and John Vincent (Conran, $19.99)
One-Pan Bow Ties With Shrimp, Spinach and Feta
I had a great time figuring out how to best cook this pasta dish in one pan. Turns out, cooking the pasta in a mixture of vegetable broth, water and lemon juice flavors the pasta in the best possible way, and then there's all that shrimp, spinach and feta cheese crumbled in, making it taste even more fabulous. The end result is a lemony, cheesy pasta and shrimp for dinner, all in about 40 minutes. Feel free to add a generous sprinkle of red pepper flakes and lemon juice, if desired.
— Carla Snyder
2 cloves garlic
2 cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound dried bow tie pasta
1 pound small to medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
8 ounces baby spinach
8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
On a large cutting board, chop the onions and mince the garlic in separate piles. Combine the vegetable broth with 1 1/2 cups water in a large liquid measuring cup, then grate the zest from one of the lemons into the cup. Squeeze the juice from both lemons into the cup.
Heat a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. When the oil simmers, add the onion and saute until it begins to soften, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute, or until fragrant.
Pour in the broth mixture and add the pasta, pressing down on the pasta to submerge it. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the pasta for about 10 minutes, uncovered, stirring every now and then. It shouldn't be completely tender yet. If the pasta isn't submerged, add another 1/2 cup water.
Stir in the shrimp and continue to cook, stirring, until the shrimp are almost cooked through, about 3 minutes. Stir in the spinach in batches, adding more as each previous bunch wilts, and then stir in the cheese. This will take a few minutes, and the pasta and shrimp will have a chance to tenderize. There should be a little sauce in the bottom of the pan. If not, stir in another 1/4 cup water to juice it up. Taste and season with salt and pepper if it needs it.
Heap the pasta onto heated plates and serve immediately. It's best when really hot.
— From "One Pan, Whole Family: More than 70 Complete Weeknight Meals" by Carla Snyder (Chronicle, $24.95)
Cheese and Pepper Pasta (Cacio e Pepe)
There are many ways to make this classic dish, and each Roman cook will show you some slightly different way to manipulate pasta, cheese and pepper into a wonderful, warm bowl of comfort food. We saw this method, called "risotato" as it is like making a risotto, being used by chef Rossana Gialleonardo at Il Casaletto restaurant in the surrounding hills of Rome. After sharing her trick with us, we sat down to eat the creamiest version of cacio e pepe ever and decided from now on that is how we would do it. The pasta is cooked in a frying pan, and the cooking water reduces to become the sauce. The typical Roman pasta to use for this dish is fresh tonnarelli, a sort of squared spaghetti, but for this method spaghetti is a must. The cheese should be the semisoft sheep cheese from Lazio, called Cacio de Roma, but if this hard to find use Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano instead.
— Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces dried spaghetti
Generous pinch of salt
3 1/2 ounces Cacio de Roma or Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
Heat the oil with the pepper in a large frying pan (about 12 inches) over a medium heat until it's hot and you can smell the heady spice of the pepper. Put the spaghetti into the frying pan and add 4 cups of the hot water, little by little, and the salt. Stir frequently and cook for about 10 minutes. While the pasta is cooking, warm some bowls in a low oven. If the pasta starts to look dry, add a little more water. When the water has reduced to a soupy consistency and the pasta is al dente, remove the pan from the heat and add the cheese a little at a time, stirring furiously. Serve straight away in hot bowls — this is important to prevent the cheese from setting. Serves 4.
— From "The Long and the Short of Pasta" by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi (Hardie Grant, $29.99)
Pasta With Firm Vegetables
This is Pam Anderson's formula for one of the basic techniques in her book, "How to Cook Without a Book," where she encourages readers to "internalize the formula" for simple meals like this one. The photos demonstrate squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, but the recipe is written so that you can use the firm vegetable of your choosing (broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, cabbage, snow peas, sugar snaps, green beans, carrots or potatoes). This recipe calls for steam-sauteing the vegetables with the aromatics, but I often use roasted or grilled vegetables, especially if I'm trying to use up leftovers. For tender and leafy vegetables, cook them for a shorter time before adding the cooked pasta and cooking water to the pan.
Flavorings can be dried herbs, spices or what's in your cabinet or pantry, such as olives or almonds, which cook with the vegetables. Fresh flavorings like herbs and zests are added at the end when tossing the Parmesan cheese with the pasta. What she calls enrichments are 1 cup ricotta, 1 cup tomato sauce or 1/4 cup pesto.
12 ounces dried pasta
4 tablespoons fat (olive oil, butter or fat rendered from sausage or bacon)
Aromatics: 3 garlic cloves, minced, or 1 medium-large onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 to 1 1/4 pounds firm vegetables, chopped into 1-inch or bite-size pieces
Flavorings (see note)
Enrichments (optional, see note)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Ground black pepper, to taste
Bring 2 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Using the back-of-the-box cooking times as a guide, cook the pasta, partially covered and stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente.
If using pork rendering as the fat, cook the bacon or sausage now. Bring 1/3 cup water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, fat, aromatic, firm vegetables and any flavorings (except fresh ones) to full steam in a large covered skillet. (Steam will start to seep out between lid and skillet.) Continue to steam over high heat until the vegetables are brightly colored and just tender, 5 to 7 minutes, depending on their size. Uncover and continue to cook until the liquid evaporates and the vegetables start to saute and turn golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes longer.
Reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, drain the pasta. Return the pasta to the pot, add the contents of the skillet, some of the pasta cooking liquid, any optional fresh flavorings and/or enrichments and the Parmesan, tossing to coat. Add more water, if needed. Taste and adjust the seasonings, including salt and pepper. Serve, with additional cheese passed separately. Serves 4.
— From "How to Cook Without a Book" by Pam Anderson (Clarkson Potter, $29.99)