When Americans cook pasta, most overlook the magic that’s left behind from cooking — pasta water.
In Italy, as the country prepared for coronavirus lockdown, people hit the markets and grabbed boxes of pasta. In the UK, pasta sales almost doubled. Here, pasta sales have gone up an unprecedented 400 percent. Forget March Madness. We’re talking starch madness.
I’m assuming you’ve got pasta. It’s comforting, pantry-friendly, cheap and beloved. But most Americans do not understand pasta. There, I’ve said it. Pasta is not your bad boyfriend. There’s a reason athletes pile on the pasta before a competition —it’s easily digestible, keeps your stomach satisfied longer, offers a clean burn and has a low glycemic index for balanced blood sugar. Low glycemic is good. To keep it that way and make for happier pasta experience overall, cook pasta the way it’s designed — al dente, not all gummy. Al dente means to the tooth, it should have some bite.
When you make pasta, use lots of water, bring it to a serious boil, salt it and keep it company. Stay with it, give it a stir now and again, don’t walk away, don’t text your friends, don’t check your Insta feed. Pasta doesn’t like to be lonely.
There’s more pasta than spaghetti. In Italy, there are dozens, if not scores, of traditional pasta shapes, far more than the ones we get here. There’s rigatoni, lasagne, angel hair, farfalle. With short pasta, my husband, a straight-shooting guy, likes penne, straight narrow tubes — they’re supposed to look like quill pens. I have a fondness for fusilli, pasta twists, but then again, I’ve got a twisted sensibility. Think about your favorite, how does it reflect your personality?
Check your pasta a minute or two before the package says to. Taste it. When you can bite into it, with some chew, not crunch, you’ve reached al dente. Drain the pasta, but try this fantastic Italian trick — reserve the pasta water. The water gets starchy from the pasta, so it’s thick and has some oomph.
Toss your pasta and sauce together and add a good ladle or so of the pasta water. You don’t want to drown the pasta, just give it a little something to drink. Rather than diluting things as you’d imagine, the starchy water helps the sauce and pasta bond, can you see? It hugs the pasta. And creates and an incredibly silky mouthfeel. And it’s free.
This is a great example of cocina povera, peasant cookery, using everything, wasting nothing and being really creative in the kitchen. Considering we waste up to half our food in this country, cocina povera is an old world tradition that needs to go retro. Call it cocina povera, call it conscious cookery, it’s creating something-from-nothing magic. It’s about having kitchen smarts.
Try the pasta water trick the next time you make pasta, which will probably be soon. Let me know how it goes. I am not, by the way, Italian, except in my heart. But I love food traditions, and our ancestors often had the right idea. Ciao. And buon appetito.
Spaghetti with Tomatoes and Lentils
- 8 ounces whole grain spaghetti
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 pint grape tomatoes halved
- 1 cup lentils cooked (preferably beluga black lentils or French green lentils, which keep their shape after cooking)
- 1 handful basil leaves about 1 cup, chopped
- 2 cups arugula leaves coarsely chopped
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the chopped onion, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, occasionally, for about 3 minutes, just until the onion starts to soften.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. When it reaches a rolling boil, add the whole grain spaghetti. Cook spaghetti according to package directions.
- Add the halved grape tomatoes to the sauteed onions. Stir to coat the tomatoes in the oil and continue cooking, so tomatoes soften. This should take about 8 minutes, about the length of time it will take for the pasta to become al dente. Stir the lentils in with the tomatoes.
- Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot. Add the tomatoes and lentils and pasta water. It has a beautiful starchiness, which, combined with the pasta, tomatoes and lentils, thickens into a spaghetti-hugging sauce. Stir well together.
- Add the chopped basil and arugula by the handful, combining just until the greens wilt. Season generously with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Enjoy at once.
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