Thursday, July 31, 2014

10 Tips for Cooking Great Pasta (featuring Penne with Bacon, Zucchini and Peas)

Although it can be hard to pick, when people ask what my favorite dish to prepare is, "pasta" is usually what I think of first. Over the years, I've picked up a number of techniques that can make almost any pasta dish better.

Below are my 10 tips for great pasta, most of which are embodied by the accompanying recipe for penn with bacon, zucchini and peas, a great summertime pasta.

1. Undercook the pasta by about a minute; finish it in the sauce. Perfectly cooked pasta is "al dente"--cooked through but still a little chewy. Cooking pasta in its sauce helps unite the flavors between pasta and sauce, however, it also means the pasta continues to cook. So if you cook pasta al dente and then add it to still-cooking sauce, the pasta will overcook. The solution is simple: undercook the pasta by about a minute then add it to the sauce to cook for its final minute. Not only does the pasta pick up flavors of the sauce, it's perfectly cooked. Undercooked pasta will be very chewy, almost crunchy, and edible, but definitely in need of longer cooking.

2. Use shallots, in place of garlic, to provide subtle pungency that won't overwhelm the vegetables. I love cooking with garlic in pasta, but in the summer, when I want the fresh vegetables to shine, I sometimes replace garlic with shallots, a happy medium between the pungency of garlic and the sweetness of onions. Shallots come in various sizes. When recipes call for 1, that's usually about 2 tablespoons minced.

3. Let vegetables sit undisturbed for 3-4 minutes at a time to promote browning. After sauteing the aromatics--i.e. some combination of garlic, shallots, onions, sometimes celery and/or carrots--other vegetables are added the dish. If you start stirring them immediately, they will cook more evenly, however, letting them sit undisturbed will allow them to brown a bit, adding flavor. Leave them just a couple minutes, then stir and leave another couple minutes, browning multiple sides.

4. Deglaze the pan with dry vermouth. When recipes say to "deglaze," they mean to add a liquid to a hot pan that food has been browning in. The liquid cleans off the browned bits, incorporating them into a sauce. We often have dry vermouth in the fridge, usually as the result of a purchase for martinis. But we don't drink martinis that often, so the vermouth just sits there. Pasta sauce is a great way to use it up. It works just as well as white wine to add a little acidity and wine flavor to the sauce.

5. A pinch of red chili pepper flakes adds just enough heat. I like my pasta with just a touch of heat. Adding red chili pepper flakes to a pasta sauce distributes that hotness evenly throughout the sauce, giving it just enough bite. Freshly ground black pepper, in contrast, should be added at the end, since cooking makes black pepper less flavorful.

6. A dash of nutmeg adds a hint of spice. Most people associate nutmeg with baked goods like pies, but it is a wonderful spice to add to savory foods. Just a dash is a welcome component of a pasta dish. I find it's particularly good with tomatoes.

7. Reserve pasta cooking water to make sauce. As pasta boils, it leaches starch into the cooking water, which means this water is not only pasta-flavored but also can help thicken pasta sauce as a lower-fat alternative to butter or cream. Dip a Pyrex measuring cup into the pasta water to reserve about a cup just before draining the pasta, then add this "pasta cooking water" to your sauce. This works especially well to pull together a chunky sauce.

8. Use butter near the end to add richness. Sure, you can sauté pasta sauce ingredients in butter, but olive oil works just as well. To still get that buttery richness, stir a little butter in the sauce right at the end.

9. Stir in toasted nuts for crunchy texture. Pasta and its sauce ingredients tend to be mostly chewy, so tossing in some toasted nuts (or seeds) adds a little textural variety to a dish. I love toasted walnuts or pecans in particular for pasta.

10. Stir in fresh herbs at the end to wilt slightly. A sprinkle of fresh herbs on pasta looks pretty and adds bright flavor, but to incorporate herbal flavor into the sauce more, I suggest adding it near the end of cooking, especially for something like basil or fresh mint.

Penne with Bacon, Zucchini and Peas

1 lb. penne rigate pasta
2 tbsp. pine nuts
1/2 bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 shallots, minced
Salt, to taste
1 yellow and 1 green zucchini (use more if small), cut into pieces about 1-inch long and 1/2-inch wide
Dash of grated nutmeg
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
1/3 cup dry vermouth
1 cup fresh peas
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, larger leaves torn
Grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook 1 minute less than package directions for al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta's cooking water, then drain the pasta and set aside.

2. Heat a small frying pan over medium-low heat. Add pine nuts and toast until fragrant and lightly browned, about 5 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. Set aside when browned.

3. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until browned and crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Drain off the bacon fat.

4. Heat olive oil in the sauté pan. Add the shallots, season with salt and sauté a few minutes until softened, then add the zucchini and season with a dash of nutmeg and a pinch of red chili pepper flakes. Sauté for about 10-12 minutes until the vegetables start to brown, leaving the vegetables undisturbed for a few minutes between stirring. Add dry vermouth to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon to remove any browned bits from the pan. Stir in the fresh peas, reserved pasta cooking water and partially cooked pasta. Taste to pasta to ensure it has cooked to the desired doneness (i.e. al dente--chewy but cooked through). After about a minute, stir in the toasted pine nuts, cooked bacon, butter and basil. Serve pasta in shallow bowls topped with grated parmesan cheese.

1 comment: