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
Then add just-boiled pasta to the pan. Dried pasta is better than fresh for absorbing flavor.
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.