Have you ever debated buying the $0.99/lb store-brand pasta versus the De Cecco brand that costs $4.35? Is there any reason to buy the more expensive pasta?
Oh yes, there is.
The ingredient list on both brands may look nearly identical, but brands do taste different. In the same way that different loaves of white bread can all be made of flour, yeast, and water, but small changes can make each loaf taste unique; white French bread does not taste like white Italian bread, even though the ingredients are similar. Pasta makers may choose different wheat, the semolina may be ground coarse or fine, various drying temperatures and times may be used, and the cuts or ridges may be made in ways that help a sauce cling to the pasta. (De Cecco has a very interesting web page explaining this in more detail.)
Salt is also crucial. Have you ever put just a pinch of salt into a huge pot of boiling water for pasta? That’s not nearly enough. A properly salted pot of water should taste salty like the sea; you need around 1 tablespoon per gallon of water. Try this change the next time you make pasta and you’ll taste an improvement.
Once you’ve got a good brand of pasta and the proper salting and cooking technique, you may find yourself saucing your pasta the way the Italians do – with just enough sauce to coat – so that the pasta flavor really shines through in the finished dish.
This recipe is a great example of barely-sauced pasta, using golden chunks of butternut squash, a hit of smoky bacon, torn bits of fresh sage, a pinch of red chile for heat, and a handful of salty Parmesan, all accenting the pasta without overwhelming it. As a bonus, even with the bacon, this is a pretty light dish; there’s no huge amount of cream of cheese weighing it down.
So what’s in this elusive, transparent “sauce”? The trick is to add a bit of the starchy pasta water to the pan before you add the cheese. As the water evaporates, the starch helps to bind the ingredients and flavors all together without being all that saucy or watery. Just ladle a cup of water out of the pasta pot just before you drain the pasta and set it aside.
This nifty little technique makes it easy to improvise pasta dishes out of any veggies, herbs, and knobs of cheese you’ve got knocking about your deli drawer, because you can always bring it all together with a ladle of pasta water. There’s no need to skip spaghetti for dinner because you haven’t got tomato sauce.
Penne with Butternut, Bacon, and Sage
A hit of chile, a handful of sage, salty Parmesan, and a touch of bacon smoke come together in this simple pasta dish loaded with chunks of sweet butternut squash. Use good pasta and salt the water well–the flavor will shine through in the final dish.
Adapted from Food and Wine, March 2003
for roasting squash:
1 small butternut squash (about 4 cups), peeled, 1/2″ dice
1 Tbs. olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 lb. penne rigate (penne pasta with ridges)
1/4 lb. bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2″ pieces
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
16 fresh sage leaves, torn into pieces
red pepper flakes, to taste
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup Parmesan, grated or shredded
Heat oven to 425F. On a baking sheet lined with greased foil, toss together the butternut, oil, salt, and pepper. Spread into one layer. Roast 15 min. or until tender.
Boil a large pot of salted water. Use roughly 1 tbs. kosher salt per gallon of water.
Cook pasta until al dente or according to package directions. Ladle 1 cup of the pasta water into a heat-proof container (like a Pyrex measuring cup) and set aside. Drain pasta and do not rinse.
While the pasta cooks, heat bacon in a high-sided skillet over medium heat until browned, 4-5 min. Add the shallots, sage, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Cook until shallots are soft, 2-3 min.
Add the roasted squash, cooked pasta, and reserved cooking water to the pan. Cook over medium-high heat, tossing gently, until the water has evaporated, 2-4 minutes. Add cheese and toss. Adjust salt, pepper, and chile flakes as needed.
Serve with additional cheese at the table if desired.