Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Great Pasta Dish

When I was young, if someone asked, "what's for dinner?" and the answer was "pasta" that meant that either Mom was going to be home late, or *gasp*! Dad was in charge of dinner. My mom would freeze her own sauce for convenience, but sometimes, in a pinch, we'd have Prego--something that Dad would have stored down in the basement for just such an occasion as this. At that age, I thought pasta could only have a red sauce, or on very rare occasions, a white sauce, like the once-a-year alfredo we'd have. But pasta dishes can be oh-so-much-more.

Do you ever fancy a pasta dish that isn't loaded with sauce, but instead is loaded with vegetables, meats and other seasonal ingredients that you like? A dish that is light, but great tasting? Well here's a cooking technique to add to your arsenal.

Save the pasta water.

The starch from the pasta water actually helps the other ingredients you want in your pasta to stick and spread evenly throughout your dish, creating a sauceless pasta which is flavored by your choice of ingredients, not a thick sauce.

When creating your dish, pick ingredients that go well with pasta, and that go well with each other. An easy combination is pork sausage, mushrooms, peas, and sliced onions. Or chicken sausage, sundried tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms. Or my all time favorite, especially for fall and winter, chicken, mushrooms, onions, pine nuts and roasted butternut squash (and greens for color). Also have shredded parmesan cheese (grated yourself is the best) on hand.

Heat up water (salt it well!) for your pasta. I find that shorter pasta works better for this: penne and farfalle (the little bows) are the best, but fusilli and even spaghetti will work if you don't have anything else on hand.

While this is heating, cook each of your ingredients, and flavor them separately. While your pasta itself is cooking, mix all of your ingredients together in a large pan, so that their flavors can meld for a bit.

When you drain the pasta, save some of the water it was cooked in (1-2 cups). Put the pasta back in the pot, add the pan of your ingredients, and a half a cup of the pasta water. Put the heat on high and mix all the ingredients quickly. Add another 1/2 cup of the water, and mix until the ingredients are spread evenly throughout the pasta. Remove it from the heat, and stir in the parmesean cheese until melted. And your dinner is served!

I'll take you step by step through my favorite.

Chicken and Butternut Squash Pasta

1 box farfalle (or other short pasta)
1-2 breasts of skinless boneless chicken
1/2 package of fresh button mushrooms, sliced
1 small onion (or half a large one), thinly sliced
1 handfull of pine nuts
1 TBSP of dijon mustard
1/4 real maple syrup (do not try this with Ms. Butterworth's)
1/8 tsp of Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup of shredded parmesean cheese
2 cups of chopped fresh butternut squash
Salt and Pepper
Olive oil

Chop the chicken breasts into bite size pieces. Whisk together the maple syrup, mustard, and worcestershire sauce. Marinate the chicken in this mixture. Heat a pot of water to boiling, and salt it well. This means about 1/8 cup of salt. While it's heating, put some oil inthe bottom of a large skillet, and put in butternut squash; after about two minutes, pour in a little water so that the bottom of the skillet is covered with liquid, and then put the cover on the pan for 15 minutes, and stir it occasionally. After 15 minutes, take the top off, and turn up the heat to brown the squash. Stir frequently and watch carefully. While this is cooking, chop the onion. For this dish, I like it in small slices; diced just doesn't seem right.

Here is how to chop thin slices easily from an onion. This root technique will help you with any cut of onion actually. First chop off the head (the pointy end, not the end with the root), and cut it in half the long way, right through the root. Peel off the skin, and then take your knife and cut longitudinally almost to the root in small pieces, but not all the way to the root. When you've finished cutting, then cut across the root to separate the pieces, and you'll have perfect slices (see picture for visual).

Saute the onions, and the mushrooms in olive oil. Defrost the frozen spinach, and squeeze the water out. You'll also want to dry toast the pine nuts to get more flavor. Take a small skillet and heat it, with nothing in it put the pine nuts. Keep it on medium heat. You will have to turn the nuts frequently, and watch them carefully. As soon as they brown, take them out of the pan. Reserve these to add at the end with the cheese.

Put pasta in the pot to cook. Meanwhile, cook chicken pieces (drain marinade) in skillet with olive oil. Once they are cooked through, take two forks and shred the pieces. Then turn the heat up and brown them. Add the spinach, mushrooms, onions, and squash. Let these flavors meld, test the pasta. When the pasta is just cooked through, drain it, reserving 1-2 cups of the past water. Return the pasta to its original pan, add the ingredients in the skillet, and a half cup of the pasta water. Turn on the heat, and mix to distribute all ingredients. Add a little more pasta water and continue to heat and mix quickly until everything is evenly distributed throughout. Remove the pan from heat, and add in parmesean cheese and pine nuts in two batches, mixing until cheese is melted.

The best part about this dish is that you can tailor it to your tastes, and to the season at hand.

Here are some tips for making this dish come out just right every time:

1. Flavor each component separately. With a meat like chicken, which doesn't have much fat, a marinade will work; sausages can usually stand up themselves. Definitely flavor all vegetable components.

2. When you put your colander into the sink to drain the pasta, put a pyrex measuring cup into the colander; that way you won't forget to save the water! (believe me, this has happened to me more than once, and the dish is definitely not the same).

3. Don't be afraid of the pasta water. It may look liquidy when you add it back in, but the heat and the mixing will get rid of it. That being said, don't overdo it; it's not soup.

Once you get this down pat, you'll love to make them, and whoever you're cooking for will love to eat them!