It’s been a whole month since my last post (as was pointed out by my biggest littleclove fan, the lovely Katherine, in the comments section of buttery banana bread). Thanks for lighting a fire under my sauté pan, K.
I may have mentioned this before, but my real job is in television and we are wrapping up a season right now and that takes a lot of energy and time. Sadly, I haven’t cooked much in that last few weeks, and the last thing I felt like doing after a long day of looking at my computer screen was look at my computer screen.
But the good news is that I have the entire month of June and July off, and I’m ready to plant my vegetable garden, hit the farmers markets, fire up the new gas grill that I’m going to purchase, dust off my saved recipes and start cooking!
I can hardly wait for summer to get here. It’s still cold and rainy in Chicago this week and I’m really really really over it. Really.
That being said, now I can get on to more good news.
From the folks at Bon Appétit, I have learned some pasta making magic. I know what you’re thinking. Magic? Don’t we get pasta already? By now we all know how to make a really good Sunday gravy, and then there is this and that and this and that, as well. All delicious.
We kind of know what we’re doing around here when it comes to pasta……or so we thought.
Cooking for me is a learning process, and I have recently learned the fundamentals of turning a good pasta dish into a great pasta dish. Some of this I knew, some I didn’t…and some of it made me say, “Wow. I get it now.” I love those moments.
When I picked up my May issue of Bon Appétit, The Italy Issue, I was enlightened. I usually don’t write directly from a magazine, but I want you to fully understand the magic that’s here, so I’m going to give you the gist of what I learned from them, and your life will be forever changed.
(1) Forget the pot and use a sauté pan.
You build the foundation of your sauce in a sauté pan. At its most basic, a pasta sauce requires just a handful of ingredients and 20 minutes of cooking time. Basically you heat olive oil, sauté some garlic and a vegetable or two and then add some pasta water. (You still cook your pasta in a pot of boiling water first).
I never fully understood why you are told to add pasta water in some recipes. I understood the reason to add the pasta water was because it was handy and right there in front of you. But there is a better reason. The starchy water and oil simmer together forming the foundation of a sauce.
Adding the cooked pasta to the sauce in your sauté pan ensures that each strand will be coated with sauce. It makes the dish come together, and it’s not just a plate of noodles with some sauce thrown on top. That makes so much sense, doesn’t it?
(2) Use salt in your cooking water.
I knew this and have suggested that you to do this before, but we weren’t using nearly enough. I used to throw in a dash or two. Nope. Throw in a whole handful! And make it Kosher salt.
The noodles absorb water as they cook, so you’re actually flavoring the otherwise pretty bland starch-y noodles. And don’t forget that you’ll be throwing this now salty water back into your sauté pan for your sauce which means extra flavor. Salty pasta water is the secret ingredient in most sauces.
Just scoop out some of the water with a coffee cup or measuring cup and add some to the sauté pan. Then, simmer everything until the water and oil emulsify and begin to form a creamy sauce. It gives your sauce body and flavor.
(3) Use Tongs.
While the pasta is cooking, grab a pair of tongs and use them to transfer the noodles straight from the pot to the pan, toss the noodles into the sauce, and then use them to plate your noodles for serving.
I have always put my bare noodles into a serving bowl, and took whatever sauce I’ve made and mixed it with the noodles right in the serving bowl. Oh, no, no, no. Using tongs, you add the noodles to your simmering sauce and let it cook some more. Plus, using tongs is fun!
You can also strain the pasta first, if you prefer, in a pasta strainer (or SKOL-A-MAC-A-DOON, as we call it) and then use the tongs to transfer the pasta from the strainer to the sauté pan. But don’t forget to save some of that pasta water before you strain it.
(4) Bring it all together in your pan.
Undercook the pasta by about two minutes (you should see just a bit of white when you bite into each piece) and finish cooking it in your sauce. To coat the pasta with sauce (I love this part) try some fancy restaurant fry-pan flips and then use tongs as if you’re tossing a salad until the pasta is completely coated. If the sauce seems sticky, add a bit more pasta water and toss some more. Too brothy? Let it cook some more. Just remember: the pasta will continue to absorb the liquid and the sauce with thicken off the heat.
Oh my gosh, I’m having so much fun, aren’t you? On to #5. And get this:
(5) Everything is better with butter.
Oh, yeah. This seems to be a recurring theme around here lately, and it’s true. It’s the other secret to rich, silky sauces and apparently all the restaurants use it. You sneak a few tablespoons right in the end before serving and it just takes the dish to a heavenly level.
(6) Cheese is not just a garnish.
We add it to the sauce, too. I think we’ve learned that plenty around here, but it’s worth repeating because it’s another key step. Also keep in mind: Skip the pre-grated cheese and grate it fresh yourself. Grate it finely so it melts easily into the sauce (my cheese up there isn’t grated as finely as it could have been), and think beyond Parmesan (which we do around here) and use a stronger cheese like my beloved Pecorino Romano!
(7) Use a broad bowl with high sides for serving.
I don’t have a photo of the wide looking bowl for you because I haven’t had a chance to get over to Crate and Barrel for a few of their beautiful white pasta bowls that were featured in the magazine (as I’ve said, I’ve been a little busy). I will be purchasing a few of those very soon and they will make a beautiful appearance here shortly.
This type of bowl keeps the food warm. And if you’re into a nice visual presentation, use white ones because it makes the colors in the sauce pop. Use your tongs to plate the pasta and try to make it look like a little bird’s nest (if you’re using a long noodle like perciatelli or spaghetti). Twirl the pasta, lift it out of the pan, lower it into the bowl and then re-twirl. Gorgeous!
(8) Toss in some fresh herbs to finish.
If a recipe calls for fresh herbs, toss some more in at the very end. The combination of cooked and uncooked herbs add depth. (And it makes it look very pretty!)
Use these tomatoes for this recipe if you can find them:
I used Perciatelli, which is a thicker Bucatini, and fun to slurp up:
One more thing: Don’t wear white when you make this. You will never make it through the meal without a spot or two on your shirt. My Grandma Dolly always said you can never eat pasta without getting a few spots on yourself. She was right.
The very first pasta dish I tried using these methods was Pasta Al Pomodoro (Tomato Pasta) which was one of the dishes featured in the magazine. I made it for our friends Beth and Katherine and it was simply delicious. There were collective “mmm’s” for about 5 minutes before anyone came up for air. It’s always fun to experiment on friends, even better when dinner comes out this great. It’s restaurant quality, not even kidding.
Pure pasta magic.
Pasta Al Pomodoro
Inspired by Bon Appéit magazine, May 2011, The Italy Issue
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
(1) 28 oz. can peeled tomatoes, pureed in a food processor (or mini-cuisinart)
2 tbsp unsalted butter
a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
12 oz. (3/4 of a pound) of Perciatelli or Bucatini pasta
3 large fresh basil leaves
¼ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
Heat olive oil in 12” sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the minced onion and cook, stirring, until soft, about 12 minutes. (Don’t worry if the onion seems watery at first, it will thicken up).
Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 2-4 minutes. Add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes; cook for 1 minutes more. Increase heat to medium, and add the peeled tomatoes (pureed in a food processor), and season lightly with kosher salt; cook stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly and the flavors meld, about 20 minutes.
Remove pan from heat, stir the basil leaves and set aside. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil. Season with salt (a handful). Add the perciatelli or spaghetti and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender.
Drain pasta, reserving ½ cup of the pasta water. Heat skillet over high heat. Stir in reserved pasta water to loosen sauce; bring to a boil. Grab your tongs and add the pasta and cook, stirring, until sauce coats pasta and pasta is al dente, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat; add the butter and the pecorino romano cheese. Toss until cheese melts. Transfer to individual bowls with tongs, make your little bird’s nest and twirl and then serve with more cheese on the side.
*NOTE*-I minced the onions in my mini-cuisinart, which was very handy, and minced the garlic with a garlic press.*