Pasta!

Just a collection of pasta recipes that I have enjoyed making. 

(Last updated 7/26/21, added a recipe for Bolognese sauce)  

I have been trying to make various pasta dishes this year. Not only are the results palatable, cooking pasta has been one of the few things that bring me joy and a hint of productivity. 

From my brief experience with Italian cuisine, I would say it can be encapsulated in the idea of complexity from simplicity—creating rich, nuanced flavors from the combination of simple, fresh ingredients. One dish that illustrates this idea would be pasta aglio e olio, which translates literally to “pasta with garlic and oil.” As the name suggests, this pasta dish is made exactly with the duo ingredients of garlic and olive oil, with the supplement of sprinkles of parsley and chili flakes. No cheese, cream, tomatoes, or meat that we commonly associate with pasta, this dish creates a luscious sauce through the magic of emulsion that highlights the unique characteristics of each ingredient. Through further simplification we have cases like cacio e pepe, meaning “cheese and pepper,” creating an amazing silky sauce with the union of pecorino cheese and freshly ground peppercorns. Less is more. 

Something else I noticed is that some Italians and Italophiles do love to “gate-keep” their recipes. Any deviation from their authentic way (mos maiorum?) is viewed as sacrilege. While I lean toward the traditional side, I do also appreciate innovations and improvements. As such, I would embrace any modification to traditional recipes if they truly yield a better result. One key idea I have learned in my historical study is change over time. Before the Columbian Exchange starting in the 15th century, produce like tomatoes was a foreign concept to the inhabitants of the principalities of Italy. Yet gradually through centuries of adaptation, tomatoes have become a quintessential part of Italian cuisine. So, why not embrace changes? 

(Though, I will absolutely report you to the pasta police if you break spaghetti in half.) 

Before we begin, I do want to clarify that by no means I am claiming I have mastered these recipes, or even remotely close to that. It is a long and gradual process of learning and improving. This collection simply serves as a notebook for what has worked for me so far. And since I learned mostly from watching YouTube videos, I will also link some of the videos I found helpful throughout this post. 

The post is still under construction and will be continually updated. Perhaps once per week till I run out of ideas…? 


Cooking technique

The Myth of Using a Large Pot

The first point I would like to discuss is this so-called tradition of using a large pot with a large volume of water to cook pasta in. From The Food Lab, chef J. Kenji López-Alt revealed that this is actually a relatively modern method—and one that is neither necessary nor optimal for cooking pasta. To summarize his tested results, a large volume of water is no more efficient to retain temperature after adding in pasta as the energy needed is constant regardless of pot size. A large volume of water at a rolling boil also does not help to prevent pasta noodles from sticking to each other, which can be easily be solved by stirring the pasta a few times during the early minutes. In fact, we don’t even have to boil the pasta water. Water at a high temperature of above 180°F is sufficient to cook pasta to al dente. Now onto a reason to use a smaller quantity of water: it produces a more starchy pasta water at the end! This starchy water is the key to create a silky, creamy sauce in dishes like carbonara or alfredo. Here, the starch both thickens the water and acts as an emulsifier. Therefore, try using a smaller pot and a smaller quantity of water to cook your pasta next time! 

Salato Come Il Mare

Meaning “as salty as the sea,” this Italian phrase describes the essential step of salting your pasta water. Yes, you need to and should salt the water before cooking the pasta in it! Salted water is what gives flavor to the pasta noodle itself. Though considering the Mediterranean Sea that surrounds the Italian Peninsula has a salinity of 3.5%, this phrase should probably not be taken literally. (And through some brief research, I am less certain about this phrase having roots in traditional Italian cuisine. While we are on the same subject, do you know the popular phrase al dente is only invented in the 1930s?) To be more exact, You can aim for 0.5 to 2% of salinity in your pasta water. But in any case, this is still a good phrase to remind you to salt your pasta water liberally. 


Al Limone

(Adapted from Binging with Babish)

Let’s start with one of my recent favorites, pasta al limone. The concept of combining a rich creamy sauce with lemon seems… adventurous. I was skeptical at first too, but tasting the first bite changed my mind. It is a super fun yet simple dish that has become a staple in my pasta rotation. Perfect for a sunny afternoon. 

Ingredients

  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon 
  • A lil bit of olive oil
  • ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated  
  • Few leaves of fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Steps

  1. In a medium pot, bring some salted water to boil. 
  2. Meanwhile on a cutting board, thinly slice the garlic cloves.
  3. Zest the lemon with a grater. Then cut the lemon in half, reserve it for juice.
  4. In a medium pan, add a glug of olive oil, garlic slices, and lemon zest. Turn heat on to medium. Cook for around 5 minutes till the garlic is lightly blonde while infusing the oil. Turn the heat off. 
  5. At the same time, add pasta to the pot. Cook it around 2 minutes shy of needed. Drain pasta, reserve around ¼ cup of pasta water. 
  6. Move pasta to the pan, squeeze in lemon juice, toss to combine. Add parmesan cheese, a small portion at a time, alternate with pasta water. Keep tossing and stirring till the sauce is emulsified. 
  7. Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with sliced or chopped basil leaves. 

Notes

Garlic can be sliced or minced, up to preference. I prefer sliced as it provides more texture and bites of the sweet, mellow garlic. Adjust the amount of lemon juice to your liking; you may not necessarily want to use the entire juice of a whole lemon. If using pre-grated cheese (no judging, as I also sometimes use it for convenience), try breaking it up beforehand with a fork to reduce clumping. Some recipes would call for parsley; I substitute it with basil as I feel it complements more to the freshness of the pasta dish. 


Bolognese

(Adapted from Bon Appétit)

Traditionally known as ragù alla Bolognese, this red meat sauce is perhaps the dish that people most commonly identify Italian cuisine with, yet one that has diverged widely from its traditional root. Here I will give a recipe that resembles more of its classical origin: a slow-cooked meat-centric sauce with little tomatoes, vegetables, wine, and stock added to consummate in an incredibly rich pasta dish. Though it requires much labor and patience, it is undoubtedly my favorite pasta sauce to make (and probably the thing I do best).

Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 2-3 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 2-3 medium celery ribs, finely chopped
  • A lil bit of olive oil
  • 1 lb ground beef, 20% fat
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 4 oz pancetta, diced
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry wine
  • 1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 cup or more chicken stock
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 dried bay leaves (optional)
  • A pinch of ground nutmeg (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese for serving

Steps

  1. On a cutting board, painstakingly chop up the onion, carrots, and celeries into fine bits. This vegetable mixture is called soffritto in Italian.
  2. Add a little bit of olive oil to a large pot on medium heat. In a mixing bowl, roughly mix together the ground beef and the ground pork. Add the meat mixture to the heated pot, season lightly with salt. Brown the ground meat for around 8 minutes—it doesn’t need to be cooked through, then set it aside into another bowl.
  3. In the same large pot on medium heat, add the diced pancetta. Cook for around 8 minutes till crispy and fat mostly rendered.
  4. Add the soffritto to the pot. Cook for another 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, till the vegetable mixture is softened.
  5. Return the browned ground meat mixture to the pot. If you haven’t, now you can break the ground meat apart with a spatula. Stir and mix till the liquid has mostly evaporated.
  6. Add the tomato paste. Mix well and cook for a short minute till it’s darkened.
  7. Pour in a cup of dry wine to deglaze. Scrape the bottom of the pot and stir very often till the wine has evaporated, in around 10-15 minutes. Take a moment to appreciate your labor so far.
  8. Add in the can of whole peeled tomatoes. Use the spatula to break up the tomatoes against the side of the pot. Add a cup of chicken stock and a cup of whole milk. Throw in two bay leaves and a pinch of ground nutmeg.
  9. Lower the heat till the sauce is on a very gentle simmer with occasional bubbles. Leave uncovered, simmer for at least 2 hours. Check and stir occasionally. Add more stock or water if the sauce appears to be too thick.
  10. When you feel like the sauce is ready, discard the bay leaves. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
  11. To serve with pasta (see notes below for recommendation), cook pasta in a pot, around 2 minutes shy of needed. Drain and reserve around ½ cup of pasta water. Return pasta to the pot over medium heat, ladle the amount of sauce to your liking on top, along with some pasta water. Mix and toss for 1-2 minutes till the pasta is coated. Transfer to a plate, serve with additional grated Parmigiano Reggiano on top.

Notes

First let’s talk about the soffritto, the flavor base of the sauce. Rather than struggling over identifying what exactly is a “medium carrot” or pulling out a food scale to measure the weight of each vegetable, I would say just use roughly equal portions of onion, carrot, and celery. I’ve seen many recipes calling for a single carrot and a single rib of celery, which I found to be too little of each.

Now regarding their chopped size, I have actually tried pulsing them in a food processor. The resulting soffritto was of course very finely minced, but I feel like the texture of the sauce with it was too homogeneous. On the other end, I have seen some who would just chop them up very roughly. Personally, I prefer the sauce to have a little bit of texture but still remain smooth, so I usually chop them as finely as I have the patience for. In any case, just make sure they are in similar size to be cooked evenly.

Some recipes would also call for mincing a few cloves of garlic to be added to the mixture. I believe traditionally garlic is not common in Bolognese sauce; and for all the things I need to chop in this recipe, I will find every excuse to skip on extra work 😉

For the meat, I know most traditional recipes ask for ground veal, which is pretty difficult to get. I use equal parts of ground beef and ground pork because they are… easy to get. The pancetta also adds a lot of flavor to the sauce, and generally, I can find them available at stores; but you can substitute it with any cured bacon. Bon Appétit’s recipe employs an interesting technique of browning the ground meat in larger clumps without break them apart at first to get a better color on the exterior. I think it works pretty well, but brown the ground meat however method you like.

Regarding the presence of tomatoes… I admit that traditional ragù alla Bolognese uses little to no tomatoes in it, but this Bolognese man adds whole peeled tomatoes to his so I’m exonerated from this crime (again, grazie to him). I have indeed tried several times making Bolognese with just tomato paste and no tomatoes. The results were still fantastic, but I found the sauce to be a little… too rich from its meatiness. A can of peeled tomatoes can add much sweetness and a bit of acidity to balance out the flavor. Thus, I stand with the view that tomato has its place in this recipe.

For the liquid, I would begin with a cup for each of dry wine, chicken stock, and whole milk, because it is… again, simple to remember. Sometimes I will add an extra cup or so of stock to the sauce if it becomes too thick during the simmering process. I believe traditionally white wine is added for Bolognese, but any dry red or white wine should suffice with little variation in the final color or flavor. I like using Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, but it’s just what I usually have lying around. Use Italian wine for extra points!

While I said they are optional, bay leaves and ground nutmeg do contribute much to any slow-cooked dish, bolognese included. I feel like they add additional depth to the overall flavor with hints of their respective pungency.

Finally, let’s discuss the choice of pasta noodle to pair with this beautiful sauce. I do have some strong feelings on this topic. Although spaghetti Bolognese is very popular among American Italian restaurants, I firmly believe spaghetti may be one of the worst noodle shapes for this sauce. For all its compatibility with other pasta sauces, spaghetti is simply too thin for the job here. If you try eating Bolognese with spaghetti, you will realize the ground meat barely sticks on the noodles. Once you finished all the noodles, you will be left with a plate of sadness full of the residual sauce. This is, evidently, not the optimal experience you can have with this masterpiece.

So what pasta should we serve it with? Well, traditionally the Italians use more broad and flat kinds of pasta, such as tagliatelle or pappardelle, for ragù alla Bolognese—and they have a very good reason behind it! The wider shape and coarser texture of these pasta noodles allow them to act as a blank canvas in holding the sauce and the ground meat on them. In this way, with every bite, you would get the full experience of the sauce with the pasta. Tube-shaped pasta like rigatoni also works well in this case.

The key to build up all the amazing flavor inside the sauce is the hours of slow-cooking process. Though admittedly, due to my poor time management I often don’t have the sufficient time for this step—and staring at the pot of your hard work on an empty stomach yet unable to devour it is extremely cruel. So, I usually would simmer it for less than two hours on the first day, enjoy the food, and store the pot in the fridge. Then on the second day, I would add an additional cup or so stock and finish the cooking process in another hour. The recipe yields a pretty large pot of sauce that you can use for other purposes as well! One of them being the classic lasagna, which I may write about it in the future.


Pesto 

(Adapted from Bon Appétit

Warning: trying homemade pesto sauce will leave you forever be disappointed at the flavor (or the lack thereof) in pesto dishes served at most restaurants. 

But seriously, that has been my experience. Fresh pesto sauce is surprisingly easy to make with a food processor yet yields fantastic results. It’s pungent, exciting, and even a bit addictive. 

Ingredients 

  • ⅓ cup pine nuts, roasted
  • 4 cups 4 oz fresh basil leaves (what sane individual would measure basil leaves in volumetric units?) 
  • 2 or more garlic cloves, roughly chopped 
  • ⅔ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated 
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Steps 

  1. Set oven to 350°F. Toast pine nuts on a baking sheet for around 6 minutes till golden brown. Let cool. 
  2. If come in bunches, remove the basil leaves from their stems. Gently rinse in cold water and pat dry. 
  3. Roughly chop the garlic cloves into smaller pieces. 
  4. In the food processor, add the toasted pine nuts, garlic cloves, and grated parmesan cheese. Pulse until finely ground. 
  5. Add the basil leaves to the food processor. Pour in the olive oil on top. Run the food processor, occasionally stop to scrape down the side, till the sauce is formed and reaches the desired consistency. 
  6. Transfer the pesto to a container. Season with salt to taste. 
  7. To store, drizzle a thin layer of olive oil a top to prevent oxidation and cover. Store in the fridge for up to a week. 
  8. To serve with pasta, cook pasta in a pot and drain, reserving around ¼ cup of pasta water. Transfer the pasta to a mixing bowl. 
  9. In the same mixing bowl, add the right amount of pesto, a half to one tablespoon of butter, and the reserved pasta water. Toss and mix till the sauce is emulsified. 

Notes

Pesto, from the Italian word pestare, meaning “to pound, to crush.” Naturally, it is made in mortar and pestle according to traditions. The reason I choose to use a food processor instead is that I… do not have a mortar and pestle. It seems that the consensus is mortar and pestle can yield superior appearance and flavor, while the food processor is more convenient and efficient. I would not comment on the difference before I obtain a mortar and pestle for comparison. (Though, I do believe I will be in the camp of mortar and pestle once I try…) 

Onto the recipe itself, I composed it base on the unit of 4 oz basil leaves, which is the standard quantity of basil leaves that I can obtain in nearby markets. You should be able to scale it according to your need. Also, the ratio between each ingredient can be adjusted up to your preference. 

As the essence of the pesto sauce lies in the raw pungency and flavor of basil leaves, it is absolutely crucial to never cook it over direct heat! This is the reason behind mixing the pasta with the sauce in a different container. 


Grazie per la lettura! Check again for next week’s update! 

Extra

Since I wrote down two recipes involving basil, I would like to introduce you all to my basil plant! I have been growing it since early spring, and keep it alive is one of my proudest achievements this year. His name is Aurelian, from the 3rd century Roman Emperor who saved the Empire from the brink of collapse and was granted the title Restitutor Orbis, “Restorer of the World.” 

A basil plant comes in super handy when you need a few fresh basil leaves for your dishes. And honestly, it is surprisingly easy to grow. 

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