Pasta: the simple solution

The idea of quick, flavorful weeknight cooking is nothing new. And neither is most of the advice. In 1930, when the great Edouard de Pomiane addressed the topic in his cookbook "French Cooking in Ten Minutes: or, Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life," one of his first instructions was to start a pot of water boiling -- "What's it for? I don't know, but it's bound to be good for something."

Dry pasta ingredients: An article in the Jan. 7 Food section about cooking dried pasta said that if you see riboflavin or thiamine among a brand's ingredients, it means the noodle was made in the United States. It also named DeCecco as a brand of pasta made in the U.S. In fact, those additional ingredients indicate they were made for the U.S. market, not that they necessarily were made here. DeCecco makes pasta with those ingredients in Italy for the U.S. market. —

Well, I wouldn't presume to one-up Pomiane, but I can definitely tell you what that pot of boiling water is for in my kitchen: cooking dried pasta, the greatest friend a weeknight cook has ever had.

If you have some good dried pasta on hand, even just a chunk of dried-out cheese can be turned into a feast. (You'll want to use spaghetti or another long, thin noodle; toss it with butter and then the grated cheese -- do it in this order to keep the cheese from clumping. A good grinding of black pepper is all you need to finish the dish.)

One of my favorite recipes is only a little more complicated than that. During the winter, it seems like I make pasta with broccoli almost once a week. Here's how it goes: Cook the broccoli and pasta in boiling water (they cook together at the same time); heat olive oil and garlic in a skillet; combine.

Really, that's all there is to it. But there can be more. A lot more. This dish is kind of a poster child for culinary flexibility. I've made it with broccoli, broccoli rabe and even Chinese broccoli. It's great with kale. You can add Italian sausage, salt pork, guanciale or prosciutto. You can go meatless with olives and capers (though this is even better with a few salted anchovies thrown in).

Last week, I made it with dandelion greens from my garden and a chunk of leftover Spanish chorizo cut in cubes; that might have been my favorite combination of all.

So you get what I'm saying?

Let's start by examining some of the fundamentals. In this case, the most important being the pasta itself.

You probably already know this, but dried pasta is not simply fresh pasta that's been left out too long. Rather, it's a completely different animal. Fresh pasta is made with soft wheat and eggs and has a slinky, slippery texture. Dried pasta is made with hard wheat and water and is chewy and hearty. It's like the difference between silk and wool, and both have their uses.

Dried pastas come in a wide variety of shapes; some Italian purists will insist that each has only one ideal sauce that should accompany it. That may be true, but for most purposes, the choice is much simpler. Use long pastas (spaghetti, fettuccine, etc.) with sauces that have a creamy texture (the sauce will cling to the noodle). Use short pastas such as penne, farfalle and orecchiette with sauces that are chunky (the bits of sauce will cling to the nooks and crannies).

Though dried pasta seems as basic and reliable as an ingredient can get, there are differences in quality between brands, but perhaps in a surprising way. Tasted by itself, a really good dried pasta noodle may not seem all that much better than an ordinary brand; but what it does is make the sauce taste better. It's because of the ways the noodles are shaped (bronze dies make rougher surfaces) and dried (long, slow drying is better).

That's Italian

As much as I would like to say that there are American brands that are as good as Italian, I have not found one yet. And that is also true of pasta from Italian brands that are made in this country. (To tell where a dried pasta was made, check the ingredient list. Italian noodles are made of only flour and water. If you see riboflavin or thiamine, no matter the brand name, the noodle was made in America.)

My favorite dried pastas are from such brands as Latini, Rustichella d'Abruzzo, Maestri and La Molisana. They are more expensive than average brands, but we're still talking about dried pasta here: For me, an extra 50 cents a serving is a small enough luxury. If price is more important, both DeCecco and Barilla are fine. (Check the labels: Both are made in the U.S.)

Whichever pasta you use, the basics of cooking it are the same. The most important thing is that very big pot of very rapidly boiling water. Noodles throw off starch when they're cooking, and if there isn't enough water to dilute it, that starch turns into a gummy coating on the pasta. Also, make sure the water is heavily salted -- that will season the noodle and keep you from having to add so much salt afterward.

Recipes always tell you to cook pasta until it is al dente, but they never tell you exactly what that means. That's because it varies from person to person. Fortunately, pasta is nothing if not adaptable. Some people like their noodles cooked to the point that you can gum them; pasta maker Carla Latini, who is so exigent that she and her husband Carlo make pasta from single varieties of wheat, likes her noodles cooked just long enough that they will bend into the pot (perhaps a slight exaggeration).

To my taste, pasta should be cooked just to the point that when you cut through a noodle, there is no hard white thread of uncooked flour remaining. At this point, the pasta is tender, but still chewy, which I suppose is about as good a definition of al dente as you'll find.

Over time, you'll learn to notice when the color changes from golden to pale straw, and you'll recognize that certain swelling and limpness that comes with a well-cooked noodle. But until then, there's only one surefire way to find when pasta is done, and that's to taste it. Pluck a single strand from the pot, using a long kitchen fork or a pair of tongs, let it cool slightly (careful, hot!), then pop it in your mouth.

As soon as it's done, drain the pasta in a colander (having one of those colander inserts that fits inside your pot is a big help). Don't rinse it! Just shake off some of the excess water.

That was an awful lot of information for something as seemingly simple as dried pasta, but the noodles are the most important part of the dish. After that, everything else is pretty straightforward.

You can even cook the broccoli or whatever greens you're using at the same time in the same pot in which you're cooking the pasta. This is blanching -- cooking just long enough to make things tender. The trick is figuring the timing, and that is based on the density of the vegetable. Soft, leafy greens can be cooked in a minute or two; tough, woody stems can take as long as the noodles do.

In fact, with broccoli, add the diced stems at the same time you start the pasta and then add the florets when there is only a minute or two left.

The only thing left to make is the sauce, which for this particular pasta is essentially just olive oil and flavorings. This can be as simple as minced garlic by itself, or you can layer in other ingredients.

One obvious way to go is adding some kind of pork product, mainly because adding some kind of pork product will make almost anything taste better. Italian sausage is good -- either sweet or hot. Squeeze it out of its casing and break it into bite-sized chunks as you add it to the pan. Flatten it slightly with your fingers to increase the surface area so it will brown better (browned pork products are even better than plain pork products).

But remember that this sauce is really just seasoning. Anything besides raw sausage -- salted anchovies, olives, capers, whatever you like -- needs only to be heated through.

Watch the garlic

The one thing you want to be careful with is cooking the garlic. Don't let it scorch. If you see it beginning to go from golden to brown, immediately pull the pan from the heat and add a spoonful of the pasta water to stop the cooking.

The final fillip in the sauce-making part of the recipe is adding a ladleful of the pasta cooking water back into the saucepan. This accomplishes two things. Because there is so much starch in the water, it slightly thickens the sauce. More important, it marries the flavors of the sauce to the noodles.

To finish the dish, you just need a little cheese. Parmesan is a natural, of course, but I prefer pecorino Romano, which has a sharp, slightly funky sheep's milk edge to it. Grate the cheese if you want, but I like it better sliced off in thin shards with a vegetable peeler. That way you get a nice, distinct bite, rather than little bits mixed in with everything else.

But you should try it both ways and make your own decision. That's the beauty of learning to make a dish, rather than just following some recipe.

VARIATIONS ON A THEME: The recipe calls for sausage, but prosciutto will work too. Broccoli is a no-brainer, but try the Chinese kind for a change of pace. Finally, you can go meatless with capers and olives, unless you want anchovies too.