Simple, yet complex, pasta is more than just flour and sauce

By / Food / August 18th, 2017 / 2

Right off the top, you have to agree that without all the good stuff that goes with it, “naked” pasta — no matter how cleverly it may have been fashioned — is about as ordinary-tasting as any food could possibly be.

It figures. What else might you expect from a dried mix of durum-wheat semolina, maybe some egg and water? That’s it. Totally nothing.

But take these brittle strands and shapes, quickly boil them in loads of water — “as salty as the Mediterranean” — then add some oil, garlic, meat, seafood, vegetables, sauce or any combination of some or all of these, and you’ll discover that these ornately fabricated creations are catalysts for some of the best tastes and funnest more fun — think sucking up spaghetti — foods to ever grace a table.

What is “mac” without a yummy wash of cheese; spaghetti without a well-seasoned meat and tomato sauce; linguini sans garlic and olive oil; fettuccine without a good splash of Alfredo? And what about all of those sumptuous pasta allies like Bolognese, cacciatore, funghi, marinara, pesto, vongole, and all of the other dress-it-up things that stuff us with carby satisfaction? Pasta really is quite magic. It’s as easy as pie to make just about any pasta main, it can perk up myriad salads and leftovers can be revitalized into meals as delicious as they were the first time ’round. Allegedly carried into Europe from China by clever Marco Polo, we thank him for a gift that in all its forms became a universal food favourite.

I saw this quote on a pasta website that may further guide your endeavours: “An Italian would never pair angel hair pasta with a chunky meat sauce, nor would one cover tortellini in Alfredo sauce. And an Italian would never, ever use a spoon to eat pasta — unless that pasta is in soup.”

I will add that pasta should never be overcooked. Bring your water to a rolling boil before you add the pasta you have chosen — in small amounts, to prevent it from sticking together.

Al dente, a fancy way of saying “to the tooth,” is how your pasta should end up. Lift a strand from the boiling water with a fork, and when it has cooled, pull the strand apart. It will be just right when the centre of the strand remains uncooked. It will have an al dente bite to it when it’s drained in a colander, tossed, wound round your fork (in the case of stranded pasta) and eaten.

You may have heard that another way to test for al dente doneness is to toss a strand of spaghetti against a wall, and if it sticks, it’s done. By all means, try this at home.

A mix of crushed garlic and olive oil is always a sure-fire and simple way of dressing your pasta. But sauces of all kinds are what make it really happen. Try these two — one red, the other white — with any kind of pasta. They’re simple but great.

tomato sauce

3 cups canned whole tomatoes, drained
1 bay leaf
Sprig of thyme
1 onion, sliced thin
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh basil leaves

Place the tomatoes in a stainless-steel saucepan with the bay leaf and thyme. Add the onion and garlic.

Bring to a boil, crushing the tomatoes as they heat and keep cooking over medium-high until they become a pulp, about 10 minutes.

Remove the bay leaf and thyme. Continue cooking over low heat until you have a nice sauce. Whisk in the butter, then the parsley and basil. A teaspoon of sugar will smooth out the taste.

velouté sauce

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
2 1/2 cups chicken stock

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat and stir in the flour. Stir the mixture until smooth. Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. When your roux stops foaming and is a golden colour, pour in the stock and whisk until the mixture boils. Continue cooking over low heat for about 30 minutes, or until the mixture loses any floury taste. Toss with your favourite pasta.

Jan’s penne arrabbiata

Serves 4

My sister Jan often makes this, and shares her recipe.

4 slices bacon, cut into thin strips
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Olive oil
400 ml can crushed tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes if you wish)
1 chili, finely chopped (seeds and all if you like it on the hot side)
1 1/2 cups penne pasta

Parmesan cheese, grated, for topping

Fry bacon, onion and garlic in olive oil until onion is golden. Add tomatoes and chili and simmer gently until all the flavours have combined. Cook the penne until al dente. Drain pasta and add sauce. Serve topped with Parmesan cheese.


macaroni and cheese

Serves 2 to 4

I know it’s easy to get it in a box but it’s way better making it from scratch.

115 g macaroni
225 g cheddar cheese, shredded
1 1/4 cups hot milk
6 tbsp dry breadcrumbs
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 green pepper, halved, seeded and finely chopped
Parsley, finely chopped
3-4 scallions, finely chopped
1 tsp sea salt
2 eggs, beaten

Cook the macaroni in boiling, salted water until tender but firm. Drain. Pour the hot milk over the breadcrumbs and cheese in a big bowl.

Add the onion, green pepper, lots of parsley, the scallions and salt. Stir in the eggs, then mix in the cooked macaroni. Put the mixture into a buttered casserole dish and sprinkle with paprika.

Bake in a pre-heated 350˚F oven for about 30 minutes, or until the top of the mac and cheese is firm and golden brown.

Match: Call the kids for dinner. For the adults, champagne!

pasta, asparagus and potato salad

Pasta salads are a great break from the usual. For this one, look for tiny potatoes or cut bigger ones into smaller pieces.

225 g pasta shapes, your choice
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper
350 g baby new potatoes
225 g fresh asparagus
115 g Parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water. Drain and toss with the olive oil, salt and pepper while still warm.

Cook the potatoes in salted boiling water for about 15 minutes or until just tender. Drain and gently toss with the pasta.

Trim woody ends from the asparagus and halve the stalks. Blanch in salted boiling water for 6 minutes, until bright green and still crunchy. Drain, refresh in cold water, allow to cool and pat dry.

Toss the asparagus with the potatoes and pasta, sprinkle or shave the Parmesan overtop and serve.

chicken lasagna

This is a great dish to bring hot to the table. Place it on a trivet and let everyone help themselves. A simple green salad pairs well with all of this richness.

2 tbsp olive oil
8 cups raw chicken, minced
225 g bacon, chopped small
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 lb leeks, sliced thin
225 g carrots, diced
2 tbsp tomato purée
1 3/4 cups chicken stock
12 sheets dried lasagna


4 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1/4 tsp mustard powder
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated and divided
Salt and ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a heatproof Dutch oven and brown the chicken and bacon pieces. Add the garlic, leeks and carrot, and cook for about 5 minutes until softened. Add the tomato purée, stock and season with herbs of your choice to taste. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

For the sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour and gradually add the milk, stirring until smooth. Bring to a boil, stirring continuously until sauce thickens and then simmer for a few minutes. Add the mustard powder and half of the grated cheese, then season to taste. Don’t let the mixture burn.

Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Layer the chicken mixture, lasagna and half of the sauce in a 12-cup ovenproof dish, starting and finishing with the chicken mixture. Pour the remaining sauce overtop, sprinkling with the remaining cheese and bake in the oven for about 1 hour, or until lightly browned on top.


spaghetti Bolognese

Serves 4 to 6

This is an old favourite that is truly comfort food.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stick, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
500 g ground beef
1/3 cup tomato paste
800 ml canned diced tomatoes (2 cans)
1 tsp dried oregano
Pinch ground nutmeg
2 tsp sugar
1/2 cup cold water
Salt and ground black pepper
500 g spaghetti
Parmesan cheese, shaved, to serve
Fresh basil leaves, to serve

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high. Add onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Cook, stirring for 5 minutes or until softened.

Add ground beef. Cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, for 6 to 8 minutes, or until browned. Add tomato paste, tomatoes, oregano, nutmeg, sugar and water.

Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes or until thick. Season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large saucepan of boiling, salted water, until tender. Drain. Toss pasta with sauce and serve topped with cheese and fresh basil.

fennel, apple and pappardelle salad

This narrative recipe comes from friend Barbara-jo McIntosh, proprietor of Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks in Vancouver.

“I like this salad best in autumn, when the apples are firm and full of flavour. (But you will always be able to find a crunchy apple.) While enjoying the fresh crunch of the fruit and vegetable with the warm pasta, I am reminded of warm summer evenings, but happy to be enjoying my fire and the cozy feeling only autumn can provide.

I take one apple, peel and grate it into a pasta bowl. I zest about 1/2 teaspoon of lemon over the apple, then squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the apple. I take a fennel bulb — about the same size as the apple — and use my mandoline to slice the fennel over the apple. I then grate 1/4 teaspoon of fresh ginger — it must be fresh ginger, or don’t bother. Next add a hearty tablespoon of excellent olive oil, a pinch of sea salt and a grind of black pepper and mix about.

Meanwhile, in a pot of boiling salted water, have 3 nests of pappardelle boiling away. Each package stipulates the time to boil. When ready, drain well and add to the fennel and apple. You may want to add a tad more oil. I then grate 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese over the mixture.

Often when you buy pappardelle it comes in little nest-like portions. But get as much pappardelle as you would like. I serve this with another salad of orange, avocado and romaine lettuce with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper.”


Our West Coast wordsmith Duncan Holmes likes to cook all parts of the meal—hot and cold apps for the eyes; big, generous mains, where timing, color and taste come together on sparkling, white plates—and there’s always enough for seconds. But it’s at dessert time when he really shines. Not with precious fancy dancy, but with a melt-in-your-mouth-pastry apple pie. Granny Smiths, of course, and French vanilla ice cream.

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