Cooking Perfect Pasta
Pasta is such a staple of the American diet that it could be considered almost as American as it is Italian. At the same time pasta can be a last resort dinner for the cook that has nothing else to eat in the house and one of the most satisfying, comforting, and energy-rich foods that we eat. We all have a favorite pasta dish from our childhood, whether it is Mom’s tuna casserole, Aunt Bettie’s pasta salad, or a more Italian dish with red sauce. We all know how to cook pasta and turn out something good, but how many of us take the proper steps to produce perfectly cooked pasta?
Choosing Good Pasta
There are two major categories of pasta, fresh and dried. I will leave a discussion of making fresh pasta for a future article. Here we are talking about the dried pasta that you buy from the supermarket. Cooking perfect pasta starts with buying high-quality noodles, made with semolina flour,”hard” wheat flour containing a high percentage of gluten, the protein that gives flour-based products their structure. Pasta made with flour other than white wheat flour is increasingly available. Try whole wheat, buckwheat, or rice flour pasta for a new flavor and texture. Avoid bargain-basement pasta on sale for unbelievably cheap prices. You can afford a couple of bucks for a pound of pasta, preferably from Italy. I am not going to tell you to buy or not to buy canned or jarred red pasta sauce. Your taste will dictate whether you use a sweetish jar of sauce, doctor up a higher quality prepared sauce, or spend the time to make one from scratch. What really matters is the method, not the sauce.
Start with a large amount of water in a large pot. Don’t skimp on this one. The goal here is to add the cold, hard pasta to enough water so that a rolling boil is maintained. Salt the water well, as the dissolved salt will penetrate the pasta, giving it flavor. There is no need to add oil to the cooking water. In restaurants where a pot of water is constantly boiling, ready to cook pasta, a film of oil on top of the water coats the pasta as it is removed from the pot, saving the busy cooks a step. At home, you are going to dump the cooked pasta into a colander to drain, and any oil that you add to the pot will just be wasted down the drain. Do not add the pasta to the water until it is at a rolling boil. Stir occasionally but not for long periods just to keep the pasta from sticking to the pot. The pasta is done when it is “al dente”, soft but with a slight chewiness left in the center. For most shapes of pasta, this point is reached in 6-10 minutes, but follow the cooking times on the package, erring slightly on the undercooked side.
At this point, I recommend that you employ a restaurant trick: drain the pasta into a colander set in the sink and run cold water over the pasta until it is cold. Allow to drain for a couple of minutes, and then toss with a couple tablespoons of olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking together. You now have pasta that is almost cooked, just needing to be reheated at the last minute. Using this method, you can pay more attention to the doneness of the pasta, stopping the cooking at the perfect time, instead of worrying about timing the pasta and the sauce or other ingredients to be finished at the same time.
Next, turn your attention to the other ingredients that you will be using in your pasta dish. Make sure that any meats or vegetables that you sauté start in a very hot pan so that natural juices stay in the food. Put a small pot of water on the back of the stove and bring to a boil while you are preparing the rest of the dish. When you are almost done cooking the rest of the components, toss the cooked pasta in the boiling water just to heat up, 30 seconds to one minute.
The last step to making perfect pasta is very important and well known to Italian cooks: cook the hot pasta with the other ingredients for a couple of minutes before serving. The pasta will soak up your sauce and juices from the other ingredients, becoming infused with flavor. A good pasta dish is a coherent whole, not two separate components, pasta and sauce. Try not to be left with lots of sauce in the bottom of the pan. The more sauce and juices stick to the pasta, the more flavorful each bite will be. At all costs, avoid just dumping the sauce over the cooked pasta.
I have included two recipes for pasta dishes that are fast and flavorful. Follow the guidelines above for cooking your pasta, and use any shape of pasta that you wish. My favorite shapes are rotini, penne, and angel hair or cappellini. These pastas are easy to eat and really soak up the sauce.
- 1 lb. Pasta of your choice, cooked perfectly!
- 2 T. olive oil
- 1/2 small red onion, peeled and sliced into strips
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 c. fresh or frozen, thawed peas
- 8 shoots asparagus, ends trimmed and sliced into 4 pieces
- 1 small carrot, peeled, halved lengthwise, and thinly sliced
- 1/4 c. dry white wine
- 1/2 c. heavy cream
- 1 c. fresh spinach, washed, dried, and roughly-chopped
- 1/4 lb. Thinly, sliced prosciutto, cut into thin strips
- 1 T. finely chopped fresh mint
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 c. freshly-grated Parmesan, divided into two equal portions
- Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 1-2 minutes, until very hot. Add the olive oil, then the onion, garlic, peas, asparagus, and carrot. Let the vegetables sit without stirring for a minute, then toss and stir every 30 seconds or so for 3-5 minutes, until vegetables are softened but still crunchy. Add the wine and cook until the moisture is almost gone. Add the cream and continue to boil until cream is thickened, 2-3 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients, including half of the Parmesan and the hot pasta, and continue to cook, stirring often, until most of the sauce sticks to the pasta. Portion into bowls or plates and top with the remaining Parmesan.
- 1 lb. Pasta of your choice, cooked perfectly!
- 1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves peeled garlic, minced
- 1/2 t. red chile flakes
- 2 anchovies, mashed into a paste with a fork
- 1 c. chopped fresh tomatoes
- 1 T. capers
- 1/4 c. sliced (not minced) good black olives (such as Kalamata)
- 1 T. each chopped fresh parsley and basil
- 1/4 c. freshly-grated Parmesan
- Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 1-2 minutes, until very hot. Add the olive oil, garlic, chile flakes, and anchovies and cook briefly until the garlic just begins to brown. Add the tomatoes, capers, and olives and boil until the tomatoes have broken down and released their juices, 3-5 minutes. Add the hot pasta and continue cooking for a few minutes, until the pasta has absorbed the sauce. Portion and top with the herbs and Parmesan.