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How-To

No-Cook Pasta Sauces Mean Fresh, Quick Meals

Mix summer-fresh ingredients and tasty condiments with just-boiled pasta for light fare with big flavor

Fine Cooking Issue 21
Photos: Rita Maas
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One of the best moments in my life as a parent who loves to cook was the day I stopped making separate meals for kids and grownups. It happened when my children were still quite young, after some early introductions to the Italian and Mediterranean cooking that’s standard fare at our house—especially pasta.

When summer comes, I love to serve pasta dishes with raw sauces; the Italians call them pasta con salsa a crudo. With raw sauces, there’s no cooking beyond boiling the pasta—the only heat applied to the sauce is the gentle warmth from the cooked pasta. My kids love these dishes, and they’re fantastically fast and easy. I keep my pantry well stocked with high-quality condiments (see below), I see what looks good at the market, and I’ve got dinner for family or guests at a moment’s notice.

Ingredients to keep on hand

A well-stocked pantry lets you make dinner at a moment’s notice. You’ll always be able to whip up easy, fast pastas if you keep ingredients like these on hand:

  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • Parmesan cheese
  • prosciutto
  • capers
  • black and green olives
  • anchovies
  • dried chiles
  • sardines
  • canned tuna
  • pine nuts
  • almonds
  • oregano
  • thyme
  • fennel seeds
  • sun-dried tomatoes
  • dried pasta of various shapes and sizes

Good-quality fixings, finely chopped

There are a few tricks to Italian raw sauces that will ensure great-tasting results.

Choose high-quality ingredients. This doesn’t mean expensive; it just means that you should pay as much attention to your shopping trip as to what goes on in the kitchen. Since there’s no cooking involved with these sauces, the ingredients stand on their own feet, original and pure.

There’s no strict science, but raw sauces do rely on a few principles.

  • Use olive oil to flavor the sauce. It takes on the flavors of the sauce ingredients, binds them together, and has a flavor all its own. A good-quality extra-virgin olive oil that you’ll find in the supermarket is best. Estate-bottled olive oils are wonderfully distinctive, but they’ll overpower a raw pasta sauce.
No-cook sauces depend on the juiciest, most flavorful tomatoes. Drain them so the sauce has less water and more fresh tomato flavor.

  • Add a wet ingredient, like tomatoes, and a green one or a crunchy one to go with it.
  • Include a briny or salty flavor and a fragrant, herbal one to balance it.
  • Finely chop the ingredients to keep them small. That way, they’ll be evenly warmed by the gentle heat of the pasta and evenly dispersed throughout the dish. They should be close to room temperature so they don’t cool the pasta as you mix everything.

These recipes will give good guidelines and proportions for concocting your own preparations. You’ll learn through experience, but a good rule to follow when you begin exploring past the recipes here is that simplicity is a good thing.

Green and black olives spice up Fettuccine with Tomatoes, Capers & Olives.

Dry pasta holds heat better than fresh

Look for dried pasta labeled “durum semolina” or “durum wheat.” I like to use this type of hard-wheat pasta because it’s good and chewy and holds heat longer than fresh pasta. De Cecco, Barilla, del Verde, and Ronzoni are all good—you don’t need to buy expensive gourmet pasta. And durum semolina pasta is typical of southern Italy, where these raw sauce recipes find their roots.

Use pasta shapes that hold the ingredients. Raw sauces aren’t smooth like cooked sauces, so the pastas that match them best are those with hollow areas to trap the ingredients, such as shells, cavatelli, orecchiette, penne, or rigatoni. Use flat pastas like fettuccine to soak up juicier sauces.

To cook one pound of pasta, use five quarts of abundantly salted, vigorously boiling water. Never put oil in the water; oil and water separate, and this does nothing for the pasta.

Tasting the pasta is the only way to tell if it’s done. It should be cooked al dente, “to the tooth.” It shouldn’t melt in your mouth (that’s too soft), nor should you have to bite down (too hard). You should feel the texture of the pasta with a little nip of the teeth, with no chalky center.

Add darker-colored briny olives and capers last for the final toss so the summer tomatoes keep their bright color.

Cheese is optional

Raw sauces should be full-flavored but light-tasting, so use cheese sparingly, if at all. Have some good-quality cheeses on hand, such as imported parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, and ricotta salata, and let your guests decide if they want to add it. You might find that these summery-tasting pastas don’t need it.

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