No one in their right mind would ever come to me for advice on how to dress. I work from home, so I more or less live in yoga pants these days (I know, I know).
But when it comes to dressing pasta, I know a thing or two, and I’d like to help you. Here’s what I mean:
We’ve come a long way in our understanding and appreciation of Italian cuisine. Most of us know, for example, that there is no “Northern” Italian vs “Southern” Italian, that Italian cooking varies by season, by region and even by town, with tradition and innovation folded in. Names of regional specialties such as corzetti roll off our tongues. We know how to cook our pasta al dente.
And yet, oddly enough, we still haven’t mastered the simple art of saucing it.
In recent weeks I’ve noticed a proliferation of photos of badly dressed, regrettably dressed plates of pasta around the Internet ~ possibly due to the fact that October is National Pasta Month.
Now, I’m pretty easy-going when it comes to cooking; I’m all for improvisation and personal style. But there are some rules that ought to stand, and this is one of them: A dish of pasta needs to be tossed with, not covered in, sauce. That’s why it’s called pasta asciutta, which literally means “dry pasta.”
Like a good marriage, pasta and sauce have a collaborative relationship. One shouldn’t be allowed to smother the other. If you dump sauce over undressed pasta (first pic), you are not giving the noodles a chance to mingle with the sauce and absorb its flavor. The two components, pasta and sauce, never become the beautiful, unified dish they were intended to be (second pic).
To dress your pasta impeccably every time, follow these simple steps:
* Cook pasta in plenty of boiling, generously salted water, until al dente.
* Make sure your sauce is heated through and ready to go.
* Drain the cooked noodles in a colander set in the sink, taking care to reserve some of the cooking water (I use a heat-proof pyrex measuring cup that I set right in the sink).
* Do not rinse the pasta.
* Return the drained pasta to the pot and immediately spoon some ~ but not all ~ of the sauce over the noodles. Use a large serving fork or a pasta fork to toss the noodles with the sauce. Add a splash or two of the starchy cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Toss gently but thoroughly. The sauce should cloak the pasta like a clingy slip, not an overcoat.
* Serve the pasta in individual shallow bowls or bring it to the table in a serving bowl. In either case, spoon a judicious amount of sauce on top, just enough to garnish it, and sprinkle with cheese ~ unless it’s a seafood sauce, in which case, NO cheese.
* For a brothy sauce, such as clam sauce, it is best to finish the pasta in the same pan as the sauce: Drain the pasta a minute or two before it is al dente, and then transfer it right into the pan with the sauce (obviously your pan should be large enough to hold both sauce and noodles). Let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce. Portion the pasta into individual bowls and spoon any remaining juices from the pan on top.
Here are a few photos (and recipes) of properly dressed pasta, with a variety of sauces:
Fennel, Sausage and Tomato Pasta with Rosé from Lemons & Anchovies
Pappardelle with Wild Boar Ragu from Majella Home Cooking
Pasta con Creme Fraiche, Zucca e Rosmarino from Semplicemente Pepe e Rosa (in Italian)
Pasta with Fried Aubergines from Juls’ Kitchen
Pasta with Creamy Mushroom Sauce from Lucullian Delights
Pici con le Briciole from Emiko Davies via Food 52
(Update) And on a related topic, here’s a funny piece from Christina’s Cucina on how NOT to make tomato sauce.
Below is my recipe for simple tomato sauce. Now go forth and make yourself a nice dish of properly dressed pasta. Buon appetito.
When plum tomatoes are no longer available in the farmers' market, I turn to this easy basic sauce. Using superior-quality canned or bottled tomatoes (if you can your own, all the better) and good olive oil makes all the difference in this recipe. You can use either whole canned tomatoes or diced. For convenience, I like to use imported diced Italian tomatoes packed in their own juices. Stay away from tomatoes packed in heavy puree, which makes the sauce taste too much like tomato paste.
- 2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
- 1/2 cup finely diced red onion
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 (28-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, with their juice
- Kosher or coarse sea salt
- 5 large fresh basil leaves, shredded or torn
Warm the garlic and onion in the olive oil in a large saucepan placed over medium-low heat. Use a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to press down on the garlic to release its flavor. Swirl the pan to infuse the oil. Take care not to let the garlic brown. Cook, stirring often, for about 7 minutes, until the onion is softened but not browned.
Carefully pour in the tomatoes (the oil will spatter) and stir to coat with the oil. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the tomatoes to a simmer. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt. When the juices start bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low and, stirring from time to time, let the sauce simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 35 minutes, or until it has thickened and the oil has separated from the tomatoes. Stir in the basil and taste and adjust the seasoning with more salt, if you like.