Getting a handle on dinner
A few adjustments to a recipe can take you from dry penne to pan to dinner table in the time it takes to boil a pot of water
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Cooking noodles is one of the easiest things you can do at the stove besides fry an egg -- as any saimin-slurping kid will tell you. But judging from confessions at online food sites, the term "pasta" is a source of trauma for many. Even experienced cooks confess to never knowing how much water, salt or oil to use, when to add the noodles, and -- most vexing of all -- how to tell when they're done.
Americans show an ingenious aversion to the obvious when it comes to cooking pasta, which ranges from throwing it at a wall to check for doneness, to breaking it in half to examine the color, to holding it to the light to check transparency. These apparently are trying times for harried cooks faced with such innovations as the Pasta Express, which claims to cook pasta in a long plastic tube that you simply fill with boiling water -- a puzzling shortcut with reportedly inedible results.
Simple as it seems, there is something terribly tiresome about waiting for that enormous pot of water to boil, or heaving it from sink to stove and back again. There must be a way to microwave it, we think. Hence the eternal hunt for shortcuts.
Naturally, such talk horrifies pasta purists, who now are advised to put down this newspaper and dig out that stainless-steel pasta extruder. The rest of us can dispense with the big pot of water, the salt and oil, and instead cook dry pasta right in its sauce, just like a rice pilaf. That's right, dump it in the pan with the onion and garlic, add plenty of liquid, and stir.
No, it's not respectful. It might be uncouth. And it certainly doesn't work with every kind of pasta dish. But no-boil pasta has a number of arguments going for it, the main one being that it works.
Just don't throw it against the wall to test it.
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The holy gospel of pasta maintains that you must have at least a gallon of rapidly boiling, salted water to cook a pound of noodles; otherwise the water will foam up and the pasta will stick together and taste gummy.
Many of us already break this rule, however, when it comes to lasagna or manicotti, shoving it in the oven uncooked and declaring that we prefer it "al dente."
You can trade a similar lack of perfection for convenience in cooking other types of pasta, using only enough liquid to serve as the sauce.
Kitchen-science guru Harold McGee explains that pasta sticks and creates foam because it is made mostly of starch, embedded in a web of protein. By the time boiling water penetrates the noodle surface and is absorbed within, some surface starch will dissolve into the cooking water, making it foam. The loosened starch on the pasta surface also acts as glue when noodles are pushed together. That's why cookbooks universally advise using plenty of water: to dilute the starch and give the noodles plenty of room to float around.
You can prevent pasta stickiness using far less liquid by stirring often, especially in the first few minutes of cooking. That's the best way to keep pasta from sticking no matter how you cook it, McGee writes in "On Food and Cooking" (Scribner, 2004, $40). Adding oil to the water is not really necessary and might not be very effective. Salt is added to the cooking water purely for taste, McGee notes, as such a small quantity will not change the boiling temperature.
The food scientists at America's Test Kitchen have calculated that it takes a minimum of 1 quart of liquid to cook 1 pound of dry pasta, allowing for evaporation and absorption.
Chicken broth is the standard addition, especially if it's in the recipe already. (Or use clam juice for clam dishes.) If the sauce is based on tomatoes, make up some of the difference in extra tomato sauce, or add a little tomato paste to keep from diluting the flavor too much. Don't increase any wine or vodka in the recipe, as this can produce odd flavors.
Creamy, cheesy sauces will end up somewhat thinned by the broth, but making up the extra liquid with milk or cream will produce a sticky glop when the pasta releases its starch.
Obviously, chunky sauces are less able to accommodate uncooked pasta, since you need to submerge the noodles in liquid and end up with a fairly soupy sauce. Also, tubular or shaped pastas are more suitable than long strands, which are nearly impossible to submerge in a skillet.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Skillet ziti with chicken and broccoli is a ready-to-eat, out-of-the-pan chicken, pasta and vegetable dish.
To convert a pasta recipe to no-boil, first fry the onion, garlic, bacon, shallots or other aromatics, add the dry pasta and stir to coat with oil. Then add the long-cooking vegetables or meats and liquid ingredients, which you will have increased by one quart per pound of pasta.
Bring the dish quickly to a boil, stirring often, then simmer, making sure the pasta stays mostly submerged. Covering the pan will reduce evaporation and leave you with more sauce; leaving it uncovered will help concentrate the sauce flavors.
A couple of minutes before the cooking time given on the pasta package, start tasting for doneness. It's the only sure method, since many factors influence cooking time, and pasta goes from al dente to mushy in minutes.
Take the pan off the heat when the pasta tastes not quite done.
If you're lucky, you'll end up with the right amount of sauce in the pan. If you run out of liquid before the noodles are done, stir in a half cup more broth, as for risotto. If you end up with too much liquid, spoon some off -- you don't want to keep the pasta cooking past done.
At this point, you can add cheese to a cheese sauce: Stir it in, take the pot off the stove and let it sit for five minutes, covered. The timing is a bit trickier with quick-cooking ingredients like fish or shellfish, which might need to be added a minute or two before the pasta is done.
Crisp vegetables like broccoli or asparagus also are safer cooked separately, though you can estimate when to add them to the pan if you are not too exacting about the results.
As for purists who give you grief about the abomination of cooking with dry pasta, simply point to Alain Ducasse, the celebrated French chef who has introduced a piece of kitchen equipment dedicated to doing just that.
The Pasta Pot by Alessi differs hardly at all from your own, except for its stove-to-table Italian design and $238 price tag. It was inspired by Ducasse's "rediscovery of an ancient cooking method ... that allows the starches to be totally absorbed with the pasta instead of being discarded with the cooking water."
Designer Alberto Alessi boasts that you can now cook pasta and sauce in little more time than normally required to boil pasta, in a single pot -- something a kitchen-savvy kid can also demonstrate with a can of Spam and a package of saimin.
Skillet Ziti with Chicken and Broccoli
"America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook," revised edition (2006, $34.95)
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, in 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces ziti (2-1/2 cups) or penne pasta
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup milk
1 bunch broccoli florets (1.5 pounds)
1 cup roasted red peppers, rinsed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons fresh lemon, optional
Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook in 1 tablespoon butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until lightly browned but not cooked through, about 4 minutes. Transfer to bowl.
Add another tablespoon of butter to skillet, and cook onion, red pepper, oregano and 1/2 teaspoon salt until onion is soft, about 5 minutes.
Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, 15 seconds.
Sprinkle pasta evenly into skillet. Pour broth and milk over, cover and simmer about 2 minutes.
Stir in broccoli and roasted peppers, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes.
Add chicken, cover and simmer until chicken is cooked, about 3 minutes. Stir in remaining tablespoon butter, Parmesan and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (not including salt to taste): 600 calories, 17 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 650 mg sodium, 65 g carbohydrate, 10 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 48 g protein
Sausage and Pepper Pasta Supper
Adapted from Bon Appétit magazine, March 1990
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 pounds hot or sweet Italian sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large green or yellow bell pepper, cut into strips
1 large red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 large onion, sliced
1 pound penne pasta
1 14-1/2 ounce can tomatoes, diced, with juices
3-1/2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon dried basil, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
Salt and pepper
Heat oil in large, heavy skillet and cook sausage until brown. Remove to a bowl.
In same skillet over medium heat, sauté garlic until golden, about 1 minute.
Add peppers and onion and cook about 5 minutes.
Add pasta and stir. Add tomatoes, basil, oregano and chicken stock. Cover and simmer 8 minutes, then check for doneness.
Uncover and cook until done. Season with salt and pepper, and pass Parmesan separately. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (not including salt or to taste or Parmesan ): 850 calories, 27 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, greater than 2000 mg sodium, 108 g carbohydrate, 9 g fiber, 11 g sugar, 47 g protein
Fusilli with Sausage, Artichokes, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Adapted "Everyday Italian" by Giada De Laurentiis (Clarkson Potter, 2005, $32.50)
3/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and sliced, 2 tablespoons of oil reserved
1 pound Italian hot sausages, casings removed
2 (8-ounce) packages frozen artichoke hearts
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound fusilli (corkscrew) pasta
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
8 ounces water-packed fresh mozzarella, drained and cubed, optional (or substitute crumbled feta cheese
Heat oil from tomatoes in large frying pan over medium-high heat, and cook sausages until brown, breaking up with fork, about 8 minutes. Transfer to bowl.
In same skillet, sauté artichokes and garlic over medium heat until garlic is tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in pasta. Add broth, wine and sun-dried tomatoes and bring to boil. Simmer 8 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally. When pasta is nearly cooked, add sausage, 1/2 cup Parmesan, basil and parsley and toss. Stir in mozzarella cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with Parmesan cheese. Serves 4.
Approximate nutritional analysis per serving (not including salt to taste): 1220 calories, 64 g fat, 23 g saturated fat, 145 mg cholesterol, greater than 2500 mg sodium, 104 g carbohydrate, 10 g fiber, 8 g sugar, 54 g protein