Thrifty, fast 1-pot pasta for a week­night

Orlando Sentinel - - COOKING & EATING - By Becky Krys­tal

Con­trary to cliche, a watched pot will in fact boil. Even­tu­ally. But I’d say it ranks up there with watch­ing paint dry and grass grow in terms of riv­et­ing en­ter­tain­ment. Plus, when you want to make pasta on a week­night, who has time to sit around wait­ing for the water? And surely I’m not the only one who hates hav­ing to pour all that water down the sink or lug it out to the gar­den.

The good news is you don’t need a whole pot of water to cook pasta. The even bet­ter news is that you can make your whole pasta din­ner in a sin­gle pot or pan. It’s the per­fect kind of im­pro­vised meal that can save you time and ef­fort, while also cut­ting back on your food waste.

What you get is an allin-one dish com­plete with built-in sauce. And be­fore all the “au­then­tic” po­lice come af­ter me for say­ing this is not how it’s done in Italy, let me say this: It is. Rome-based food writer and cook­book author Katie Parla notes that there are “a va­ri­ety of dishes and tra­di­tions that fea­ture cooking the pasta in the sauce with­out boil­ing and drain­ing it first.” Much of it leans to­ward a broth­ier pasta, of­ten mixed with a starchy bean liq­uid.

Here are some tips for putting a sat­is­fy­ing one-pot (or pan) pasta on your ta­ble.

Why it works. Cooking pasta in less water will not ad­versely af­fect it. As Se­ri­ous Eats chief culi­nary ad­viser J. Kenji Lopéz-Alt ex­plains, your pasta won’t over­cook or stick to­gether, although you can stir oc­ca­sion­ally as ex­tra in­surance. Plus, with a lower vol­ume, you’ll get more con­cen­trated starch in the water. That gives you the start of a sauce to coat the pasta.

The tech­nique is fairly adapt­able in terms of cooking ves­sels. For a few serv­ings, a skil­let or saute pan is fine. A larger saucepan or pot can ac­com­mo­date more.

Choose short shapes. Chef Michael Schlow, whose restau­rant group in­cludes sev­eral Ital­ian out­posts, rec­om­mends keep­ing the pasta in this type of dish small. Think penne, orec­chi­ette, mezzi riga­toni, di­tal­ini and small shells. This is one of the only times when it’s OK to break your spaghetti, says Parla, who just pub­lished “American Sfoglino: A Mas­ter Class in Hand­made Pasta” with chef Evan Funke. And if you have sev­eral boxes of pasta with just a lit­tle left in each, feel free to com­bine them, pro­vided their cook time is about the same.

Build your fla­vors. A clas­sic Ital­ian for­mu­la­tion would be to start the dish with a sof­fritto, or a com­bi­na­tion of onion, olive oil, cel­ery and car­rot, Parla says. The idea is to start a foun­da­tion that will carry through the en­tire dish. I found that thinly sliced gar­lic worked well in the mix. If you like, you can saute meat first, and use that fat to cook your aro­mat­ics. I took Schlow’s sug­ges­tion and rolled with sausage. Keep in mind that if you plan to keep the meat in for the whole cook time, you may not want to ren­der out all the fat at once, es­pe­cially if it’s lean. Other meaty op­tions Parla likes are small squares of guan­ciale or pancetta.

Don’t be afraid to use up less-than-per­fect food, Parla says. The leaves from the cel­ery? In they go. That iffy last lit­tle bit of pars­ley? Go for it. Whether it’s one lone an­chovy or the very end of a tube of tomato paste, you can browse your fridge for lit­tle pops of fla­vor. At the end of cooking, a glug of ex­tra-vir­gin olive oil, a pinch of red pep­per flakes or a driz­zle of chile oil can work won­ders too.

Round out the dish. Here’s where you can have just as much fun. “The pos­si­bil­i­ties are sort of end­less,” ac­cord­ing to Schlow. Parla says beans are a nat­u­ral fit, and Ital­ians are more than happy to in­clude pota­toes too. Schlow’s in­cli­na­tions lead to­ward greens, such as Brus­sels sprouts leaves, kale and broc­coli rabe (which was blanched first to be­gin the cooking process).

Be sure you think about when to add in­gre­di­ents based on how long, or if, they need to be cooked. Heartier veg­eta­bles, such as small cau­li­flower flo­rets, need to go in early to cook through. Del­i­cate greens can be stirred in to wilt at the very last minute.

Add the liq­uid. The first thing you need to ask your­self is, “Are you treat­ing this like a soup or pasta?” Parla says. If the an­swer is pasta, Schlow rec­om­mends adding just enough liq­uid to cover the pasta (if you’re mak­ing a large batch in, say, a wide Dutch oven, be more gen­er­ous). Parla prefers us­ing a spoon, so her pro­por­tion of liq­uid is higher.

Water is per­fectly ac­cept­able, es­pe­cially if you’ve al­ready packed in other fla­vor en­hancers. Chicken or veg­etable broth is an­other op­tion. Fo­cus on no-saltadded or low-sodium va­ri­eties, so you can con­trol the taste. Sim­i­larly, don’t salt the liq­uid as you would pasta water, Schlow says. With less vol­ume, you’ll end up with a sodium bomb.

You should not have to change the cook time from what you’d do with a large pot of water. You don’t even need to have it at a rolling boil, Lopéz-Alt says, as long as the liq­uid is above 180 de­grees. If the dish starts look­ing too dry (pasta is rather thirsty), pour in a lit­tle more broth.

Schlow does not rec­om­mend adding wine to the liq­uid, as the al­co­hol will not suf­fi­ciently cook off. You can, as Parla sug­gests, add a bit to deglaze the pan af­ter you’ve cooked your meat and aro­mat­ics, be­fore you pro­ceed with the pasta.

If you’re look­ing for an ex­tremely re­fined, com­posed dish, this may not be the method for you. “I would lean to­ward more rus­tic things,” says Schlow.

Af­ter all, you’re more likely to find this type of dish in Ital­ian homes, out in the coun­try and even at trat­to­rias, says Parla. That, however, is more than good enough for me.

TOM MCCORKLE/FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Cooking a pasta din­ner in one pot or pan saves you time, ef­fort and dishes, giv­ing you a broth­ier dish that’s as de­li­cious as it is au­then­tic. Keep it ca­sual.

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