American producer and director Adam McKay has said that ‘nothing is funnier than confidently doing the wrong thing,’ which means I’ve been an absolute riot for the past 30 years.
Allow me to explain…
While researching for my soon-to-be-released cookbook, I learned that I have been seasoning pasta incorrectly since, well…I started preparing pasta dishes. Imagine the mortification! I felt like a paralegal who finally realized that John Doe is a placeholder name and not an eerily large grouping of men with the same name.
The best way to season pasta, as I learned, does not involve cooking it until pleasantly chewy, draining it, and combining it with sauce (or just adding the sauce on top). This now “outdated’ approach adversely affects the texture of pasta and, by logical and tragic consequence, dampens our enjoyment of the finished dish. Wonder of wonders! No one was more surprised than I, for everyone I have ever known in Italy does not use this technique. It is a mystery to me, then, how something as important as a technique for preparing optimal pasta could have escaped my cooking radar…but here we are.
As you might imagine, I immediately tried it out and found that it indeed does produce plates of pasta that are practically perfect in every way. Because of this I now highly recommend adding this additional “seasoning” step, which creates what in Italy is called pasta saltata in padella, or “sautéed pasta.” Before I explain the steps involved, allow me to explain what it does.
Pasta, especially dry pasta, is very porous by nature. Once added to boiling water, its unquenchable thirst begins (which is why it plumps up as it cooks). This absorptive quality doesn’t stop once the pasta is drained; in fact, pasta remains as parched as ever. The worst thing we could do at this point is to drain it and let it sit while we futz with the sauce. Lacking any liquid to absorb, the pasta quickly becomes pasty and excessively chewy instead of tender and pleasantly chewy.
The “seasoning” step prevents this small disaster from happening by keeping pasta nice and hydrated until it is plated and served. It does so by combining almost fully cooked pasta with a little bit of fat and some reserved pasta water and then by cooking it the rest of the way in the sauce. In the process, the technique accomplishes two additional things:
- It melds the pasta and sauce more effectively, thanks to the starch in the reserved pasta water, and
- It enables the pasta to absorb some of the flavoring from the sauce, resulting in an even tastier finished dish.
And if that weren’t enough, the technique itself is quite easy, doesn’t require dirtying additional pots, and only takes about 3 minutes. To execute:
- Cook the pasta in salted water according to package instructions and drain it 2 minutes short of its directed cooking time (it would be considered slightly too firm to eat).
- Reserve 1/4 cup of pasta water (for 4 servings) right before draining it.
- Drain the pasta and return the pot to the burner. Immediately turn the heat to high, add a ½ tablespoon of oil (for oil-based sauces) or ½ tablespoon of butter (for butter-based sauces) and the reserved pasta water, making sure to have both items measured out and by the stove before draining the pasta.
- Quickly add the just drained pasta and toss until the oil/butter and pasta water have been absorbed. This usually takes about 30 seconds or so, which goes to show you just how thirsty the pasta is.
- Immediately add all or part of the sauce, depending on what the recipe directs. Continue cooking the pasta on high heat, tossing continuously, for another 1 ½ minutes or so. Done!
If you want to prepare pasta with a fresh, uncooked sauce like pesto, make sure to reserve 1 cup of reserved pasta water. Then, simply cook the pasta in salted water until it is perfectly firm for eating, or al dente, drain, and then transfer it back to the pot. Add 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water, toss and then immediately add the sauce and toss again. If the pasta seems a little dry, add a little more reserved pasta water until you reach a nice sauce consistency.
Now that I’m using the seasoning technique, I guess I will need to find some other way to be a hoot when I cook.
garganelli pasta with fava beans, pancetta & roasted cherry tomatoes
(Garganelli Pasta with Fava Beans, Pancetta & Roasted Cherry Tomatoes appears in “The Ultimate Pasta and Noodle Cookbook,” slated for release on October 24, 2017.)
Making this pasta dish requires an hour of passive time as the cherry tomatoes roast, but otherwise is pretty easy and straight-forward to make. Fresh fava beans mean springtime and lend a beautiful light green color to this tasty and nourishing sauce. Also known as broad beans, fava beans are smoother, sweeter, and creamier than most other beans and would probably be more popular if they didn’t need to be peeled twice before using. If you purchase them still in their pods, you will need to first shell them as you would peas. Secondly, you will need to remove the thick, whitish skin that envelops each bean. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to blanch them in a large pot of salted boiling water for 1 minute, drain, and cool under cold running water, then squeeze each bean out of its skin with your fingers. To add a splash of vibrant color and aromatic, savory flavor, I roast the cherry tomatoes with thyme.