A box of pasta is one of the first things I reach for on a busy weeknight when I’ve got no real plan for dinner and no inclination to drive to the market for special ingredients. At first, my impromptu pasta dinners were little more than pasta tossed with cooked vegetables, olive oil, and a bit of grated cheese, but over the years, I’ve learned techniques for getting deeper, more integrated flavors into the entire dish.
The basic method is to make a chunky sauce by sautéing a mix of aromatic vegetables, poultry, meat, or seafood in a large sauté pan while the pasta boils (in Italy, the rough, juicy, highly flavored mix of ingredients I’ve just described is called condimento). When the pasta is ready, you drain it and then add it to the sauté pan, where it cooks for just a minute or two more to absorb the flavors of the sauce, transforming it into a deliciously integrated tossed pasta.
For the tastiest sauté, first lay down a flavor base with a bit of fat
The first step for a sauté pan pasta is to choose a fat to establish a flavor base for the entire dish. Fat is a great flavor carrier, so this first step ensures that the flavors of whatever subsequent ingredients you choose will permeate the dish.
Start with a little olive oil or butter. Olive oil is usually my first choice, but sometimes I use butter for a sweeter, richer flavor—it’s especially good with slow-cooked vegetables, like the leeks in Linguine with Leeks, Prosciutto & Lemon. Butter burns easily, though, so in the recipes that need high-heat sautéing, I’ve called for half butter and half olive oil to prevent scorching.
For a deeper, almost smoky flavor base, brown some bacon, pancetta, or sausage. Once the meat is nicely browned, reserve it to add later on, and keep a few tablespoons of the rendered fat in the pan to help flavor the dish, along with the cooked-on brown bits. (I like to save fat scraps from prosciutto and melt them with the olive oil; they add a lovely aromatic hint to this type of pasta.) If you happen to have any duck fat on hand, try it with poultry, with cabbage or other hearty winter greens, or with mushrooms and sage or rosemary.
Next, add the aromatics
Once you’ve got fat flavoring the pan, add at least one member of the onion family (chopped onion, garlic, shallots, leeks, or scallions) and cook until tender and fragrant. This is also a good time to add other flavorings such as robust herbs (rosemary, thyme, or sage), crushed spices, or even minced anchovies, which melt into the sauce, giving it a gentle piquancy and surprisingly un-fishy flair, as in Gemelli with Cauliflower, Scallions & Green Olives. At this point, be sure to season the sauté with salt and pepper—do it liberally, keeping in mind that because the sauté is to be tossed with pasta, the flavors need to be good and full.
Now, choose the principal flavors
With this delicious base of sautéed aromatics, the dish can now go in almost any direction. Meat, poultry, vegetables, seafood: the possibilities are endless. Choose one or two principal flavors to give the final dish its character—avoid the kitchen-sink approach of adding a little bit of everything, or you’ll end up with a muddle. Some classic and delicious flavor pairs are sausage and a bitter green like Swiss chard, chicken with mushrooms, and cauliflower or broccoli with briny-salty flavors like green olives and anchovies.
When choosing vegetables for sauté pan pastas, consider texture and cooking time. While more delicate, shorter-cooking vegetables such as mushrooms, chard, and leeks are great sautéed right along with the onions and aromatics, hardier, longer-cooking ones such as green beans, broccoli, potatoes, and cauliflower need parcooking before you add them to the sauté. Use the pasta water for this: just drop in the vegetables and scoop them out when just tender, leaving the water boiling and ready for the pasta. The benefit here is threefold: the vegetable-infused water will flavor the pasta as it boils, the vegetables in the final dish will be tender, and there will be flavored pasta water on hand with which to finish the dish.
Use dried pasta, not fresh
It’s important that the cooked pasta hold its shape and texture after being tossed with the sauce and left to simmer. Fresh pasta is too soft and more apt to fall apart. Dried pasta is “thirstier” and better at absorbing the flavors in the sauté pan.
Add salt to the pasta water, but hold the oil. Unsalted pasta will be bland no matter how much seasoning you add to the finished dish. For every three or four quarts of fiercely boiling water—never cook pasta in less than this — dump in a generous tablespoon of salt; enough to make the water taste seawater-salty. Although oil will keep the noodles from sticking together, it also keeps the sauce from sticking to the pasta. Skip it.
Cook the pasta just until al dente, because you’ll be letting it simmer for a minute or two to soak up the flavors of the pan sauce. Start checking the pasta a few minutes before the time suggested on the package, and drain it when it still has a good “bite” left to it. Shake the colander gently to get rid of some of the water but not all: the starchy water clinging to the noodles will help thicken the sauce.
Add just enough liquid for a saucy consistency
In the end, the success of this technique relies on having enough flavorful liquid in the pan to ensure a consistency that’s saucy (but not soupy) so that the sauté blends with and clings to the pasta.
For every half pound of pasta, add 1/2 to 1 cup of liquid. You can use cream, chicken or vegetable stock, the poaching liquid from shellfish or vegetables, or even the broth from a pot of beans. And, again, the boiling water from the pasta works well, too. When using pasta water, ladle off and reserve a cup or so of the water just before draining the pasta. I take it from the center of the pot where there’s generally a vortex of foam, indicating that there’s a good deal of starch. While pasta water won’t give you as much flavor as a rich stock, it will extend the chunky sauce, and the starch in the water helps the sauce cling to the pasta.
I’ve given approximate amounts for liquids in the recipes; you’ll use more or less depending on how much the pan needs for a finished pasta that’s just saucy or brothy enough. Remember that if you’ve added too much liquid, you can always crank up the heat at the last minute to boil off the excess.
Sauté pan pastas are ripe for improvisation (see “Finishing touches,”below). These recipes are some of my favorites, but once you get the hang of the technique, have fun devising new combinations.
Finishing touches for your own pasta dishes
When you’re creating your own pasta dishes, here are a few ways to give them more zip once you’ve added the pasta to the sauté and let it simmer for a minute or two:
Add piquancy with capers, a splash of vinegar, a squeeze of lemon, a dash of grappa, or a handful or chopped olives or reconstituted sun-dried tomatoes.
Add texture and substance with crunchy toasted nuts or breadcrumbs (known in Italy as poor man’s Parmesan).
Add richness and heft by stirring in a knob of sweet butter, a spoonful or two of crème fraîche, a bit of grated Parmesan or other hard cheese, or a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Add fresh color and flavor with a small handful of chopped fresh parsley, basil, or chives.