In the Kitchen with Jackie — Show Your Pasta Some Love!

A box of pasta and a jar of red sauce might be considered by some a fallback recipe when you haven’t had time to get to the grocery store all week. For many of us it’s the first thing we learned to cook for ourselves because it’s just so easy to make. But I have a feeling that many times we take this simple meal for granted and don’t show it the love it deserves. This week I don’t have a recipe, but rather things I do to elevate my boxed pasta into more than an afterthought meal.

Let’s start with choosing our main ingredient, pasta. If you’ve ever wondered why certain brands boast “bronze die cut” on their label, it’s something that you should pay attention to. Bronze is a soft metal and when the pasta dough is extruded through the die it leaves a rough texture on the outside of the pasta. This texture produces “sauce grabbers” allowing the sauce to cling to the pasta when it’s cooked.

Anyone can boil water, right? When you prep your pasta water you should use a large pot with lots of water. Not enough water doesn’t allow the pasta to move around while cooking, resulting in uneven cooking and pasta noodles sticking to one another. Secondly, the water should be a “rolling boil”. Some impatient folks throw in the pasta when it just starts to boil which means the water is actually not hot enough and will lead to more uneven cooking. Lastly, you’ve got to heavily salt the water, more than you’re probably comfortable with using. The water itself should taste salty, “like the sea”. The pasta is flavored by the salt water, so not enough salt will leave the pasta bland. If you want to get technical you can use the golden rule of 10-100-1000, 10 grams of salt to 100 grams of pasta, to 1000 grams of water.

I usually set my timer for a minute less than the package cooking directions to check for al dente (“to the teeth”) doneness. Pasta should retain the slight bit of bite. The shape should remain in tact when tossed with the sauce and should never be soft. At one minute before the cooking time I test a noodle, or two. You should be able to see the smallest trace of white in the center of the pasta. At this time I also scoop out a cup or two of pasta water to use later. When you drain the pasta in a colander NEVER rinse the pasta! There is lovely flavorful pasta water clinging to the rough texture just waiting to mix with your sauce. 

Even with the best jarred sauce I feel compelled to make it my own. We’re looking to pump up the umami! One of the simplest ways to do this is to add a knob* of some good salted butter to the sauce after it has simmered for a few minutes. If you’re the sort of person that has anchovies in the pantry, then adding 2-3 salty little fishes will give your sauce a great kick. If you add them to the pan before adding the sauce they just melt before your eyes (unable to be detected by picky eaters).

Another classic umami booster is a parm rind. You can save your own rinds and freeze until you’re ready to use them or buy them in the store if you need more than you can produce on your own. If you add a rind I would suggest simmering the sauce for at least 20 minutes to allow it to impart it’s flavor. 

When the pasta and the sauce are ready, it’s time to marry the two together; how romantic?  I usually add the pasta to my sauce pan. In fact, I often will use tongs to bring the pasta directly from the pot to the pan and leave out the colander middleman. Tongs are also a helpful tool in tossing the pasta in the sauce. At this point you can add some of the reserved pasta water to help the marriage along.

Now you’re probably ready to plop this in a bowl and get on with the eating, but I implore you to spend some time plating your food. Yes, I know I’m a food stylist, BUT you eat with your eyes first! Try to “nest” long pasta with tongs, turning the bowl as your lower the long strands onto the plate. This will create neat pasta nests that look much more appetizing than a messy pile. Explore your culinary innovation with the extra toppings! Go classic with some grated parm or pecorino, OR be bold with burrata or a scoop of creamy ricotta. Personally, I also like a healthy amount of cracked black pepper, some crushed red pepper and drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Fresh herbs are a nice addition too if you have them – small whole basil leaves or long thin strips of parsley.

Ta-da! Now you’ve turned simple pantry ingredients into something magical. What’s your favorite thing to put on pasta?

*“A knob of butter” is my favorite British cooking unit of measurement