This easy step is the key to perfectly cooked pasta. And you already know how to do it.
Way back in 2013, One Pot Pasta took over the internet. Were you there? Did you see it? In case you missed it, my friend Nora Singley, dreamed up a method where you cook pasta in one pot with all the sauce ingredients, no draining or second pot necessary. What resulted was a perfect weeknight dish, often copied, never duplicated.
I come from the pasta school that teaches you to cook your pasta in plenty of boiling, aggressively salted water until almost al dente; you transfer it to a skillet where you’ve previously, or simultaneously, sautéed your sauce base. Add noodles and pasta water and cook, tossing, until the sauce thickens and coats the pasta. This is my preferred method but it takes practice (although, when you get it, you’ll never go back). Enter Nora’s approach, essentially a set-it-and-forget-it-style stovetop pasta.
But there’s one important thing to keep in mind: If you’re truly after al dente pasta—that means “to the tooth” or slightly firm in the center—you’ll want to keep an eye, er mouth, on the pasta. When you get close to the end of the time range (more on that in a sec), start tasting the noodles. Unlike my usual method which requires you to undercook the pasta slightly and finish it in the sauce, you’ll want to cook your pasta to exactly the texture you like.
But that’s it. And, it bears repeating: tasting as you go is one of the most important things you can do to improve your cooking. Pasta or otherwise.
Like so many recipes, once you get the hang of the method (i.e. the ratios and the timing) you can tailor it to suit the season and your preferences. We are right on the cusp of true spring here in the Northeast so today I’m making this pasta with the greenest springiest things I could find. Here’s how you do it:
1. Place 12 ounces pasta, whatever shape you like, in a large straight-sided skillet. Add 4 ½ cups water, 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 thinly sliced onion, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, and several grinds pepper. Add a Parmesan rind if you have it and bring to a boil (that means over high heat). Cook, tossing with tongs, until the water is almost evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Now, my bet that this is going to take 8 to 10 minutes. Around the 4 minute mark (you set your timer, right?) add some or all of the following: 1 bunch chopped asparagus, a handful of frozen peas or lima beans, a pinch of red pepper flakes, or whatever seasonal quick-cooking vegetables you might have on hand. Continue to cook as above, until the vegetables are tender and the water is almost evaporated.
3. I like to finish this mix with a knob of butter, a shower of Parmesan cheese, and some freshly grated lemon zest. But those are just options. Remember, the key is tasting your noodles when you start to get close. Are they ready? Great. Remove the skillet from the stove and drain. Return the whole mess to the skillet and finish as you like.
Try this with different pasta shapes, vegetables, and additions to see what you like best. My suggestion? Make it once a month (or more!) with whatever looks freshest and most appealing at your grocery store or farmers market. Speaking of farmers markets, watch Real Simple Food Editors (in the video, below) as they gather inspiration and share tips on how to shop it like a pro.