Pasta is probably the first dish that everyone learns to cook. Turning an orange powdered packet into mac ‘n cheese or combining boxed pasta with a jar of tomato sauce is how most lose their cooking v-card. While some graduate from the boxes and jars to making homemade sauce or pasta from scratch, many prefer to stick to the basics. Regardless of what pasta-cooking level you’re at, one smart way to make your pasta dishes feel more authentic is fairly simple – just save a cup or two of that pasta water (i.e., the water the pasta was cooked in).
The pasta thickens the water with its starchiness, which becomes the perfect medium for making your pasta sauce – homemade or not – creamier. The saltiness of the water (cause you salted the hell out of that pasta water, right?) also helps to season your sauce. Simple but transformative, you’ll start thinking their must be an Italian grandmother somewhere on your family tree.
Today, I never make pasta without adding a bit of that secret water. Since my all-time favorite Italian pasta dish – spaghetti (preferably fresh) dressed in olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and parsley - is the most minimalist preparation of pasta, that cooking water is what allows the noodles to shine in all their creamy, starchy glory. And since it’s hard to not think of pasta without tomatoes, I like to top my spaghetti aglio e olio with a scattering of my slow-roasted tomatoes (which were of course made while I was watching the last cheesy movie on my queue).
- Spaghetti (fresh or dry) – 1 lb.
- Garlic – 4 cloves
- Red chili flakes
- Parsley – ~8 sprigs
- Lemon – 1
- Olive oil – 4 tbs.
- Slow-roasted tomatoes or sun-dried tomatoes – 1 cup
- Garlic – Mince
- Parsley – Mince
- Lemon – Slice in half
- Bring 4 quarts of water to boil
- Salt the water with kosher or sea salt until it reminds you of the ocean
- Cook pasta until it’s al dente
- Immediately after draining the pasta, heat a large frying or saute pan over medium-high heat. Add oil to warmed pan
- Add garlic and desired amount of red chili flakes to the warmed oil
- When you can start to smell the fragrance of the garlic, add pasta with about 1 cup of the water. Toss until the water coats all the noodles. Add more water if you want to thicken the sauce even more
- Add the juice of half a lemon. Taste and add more lemon juice and kosher salt as needed
- Plate, season with fresh pepper, and garnish with parsley and tomatoes
- Since this dish is so simple, I prefer to make it with fresh pasta. Just remember that fresh pasta cooks a lot faster than dried pasta
- What exactly is “al dente”? Translated from Italian, it means, “to the bite.” Translated into home cook speak, it means that when you bite into it, it has softened but still has a chew to it – not soggy and sad
- When you get the hang of this, you’ll be able to time it so that you can take the pasta out of the water – without draining in a colander – straight into the pan that already will have the garlic smelling oh-so-good
- The acid of the lemon juice creates contrast and brings out all the other flavors in your dish. It’s a common finish to pasta dishes in restaurants. Try it at home and you’ll never have to go out for pasta anymore!