Pasta Cooking Water and Penne Puttanesca
Howdy folks and welcome to another day of Vegan MoFo 2017! Today’s theme asks us to share a favourite secret ingredient. While not necessarily a secret, the water you’ve just cooked your pasta in is often the difference between that great bowl of pasta you’ve had in a restaurant and something just okay. I’m going to show you how to use it.
So, isn’t it just water? Nope! First things first: the water you cook your pasta in has to accomplish two goals. The first is to cook the pasta without it sticking together, and the second is to season the noodles. To keep your noodles from sticking together you need enough water to keep them agitated while they cook. 2 ½ quarts/Liters for every 8oz pasta is a good quantity. That would be 5 quarts/Liters for a typical 1lb/454g box. Don’t add oil to the water. It won’t accomplish what you want it to and it can keep the sauce from adhering to the noodles properly. To season the pasta, you need to add enough salt to the water. Aim for 4 teaspoons of kosher salt for the 2 ½ quarts of water, that’s about 18g. Most recipes just ask for salted water, but they don’t tell you what that means.
There is one major difference between pasta as it is often cooked in restaurants versus at home that could count as a secret ingredient. In restaurants, the pasta is cooked in little baskets in a larger pot of salted water. So, the pasta cook could have any number of different noodles cooking at the same time, repeating this over and over throughout the night. You can imagine just how starchy that water will get pretty quickly. That’s what gets added to almost every bowl of pasta as its being finished. The noodles finish cooking in the pan surrounded by the sauce and some of that starchy water. There is a way to mimic that effect at home, and that is really the secret ingredient here. Add some semolina flour to the pot of water before you cook your pasta. It makes the water nice and starchy and helps to thicken and coat the noodles in the pan. Add 2-3 tablespoons to 2 ½ quarts/liters water.
Typically, you should drain your pasta when it is about 80% cooked. Save a couple cups of the cooking water, and add some of it to the pan with the sauce and the noodles. The noodles spend the last couple minutes of their cooking time in the pan, while the starchy water helps to thicken the sauce and bind it to the noodles. If the noodles aren’t quite cooked when the sauce has thickened around it, just add a bit more cooking water. It really does make a world of difference. Now on to the recipe
This is a wonderful combination of garlic, tomatoes, olives and capers that exemplify the simplicity of Italian cooking. Each ingredient needs to be delicious on its own, so get the best ingredients you can afford. The steps are simple, cook the pasta in ample water, seasoned with salt and enriched by semolina flour. Meanwhile, cook the garlic in ample amounts of olive oil. Add high quality canned tomatoes, then black olives and capers. When the noodles are almost done, drain and add them to the pan with some of that creamy cooking water. Simmer until the sauce is thickened around the noodles and they are perfectly al dente, meaning the maximum amount of texture possible without the noodle sticking to your teeth. This has to be one of my favourite pasta dishes, I just love it.
The cooking water after the salt and semolina have been added.
The tomatoes are cooked in a garlicky olive oil mix, then the olives, capers and red pepper flakes are added.
The not-quite-cooked noodles are added to the pan along with some of that starchy water to finish the cooking.
That starchy cooking water.
A bowl of happiness!
- 8oz Penne or other short noodle like Fusilli
- 2 ½ quarts/Liters water
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt (18g)
- 3 tablespoons semolina flour (that’s the same flour that dry pasta is made from)
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, very thinly sliced
- ½ 14oz/397ml can of whole tomatoes in juice, preferably Italian, ideally San Marzano tomatoes
- 50g/ ¼ cup black olives, pitted and thinly sliced. Preferably Gaeta, but others will do in a pinch
- 2 tablespoons drained capers
- A generous pinch of red pepper flakes
- Salt to taste
- Optional garnish of chopped fresh parsley or basil
- Bring a pot with the water to a boil over high heat. Add the salt and let it dissolve, and then sprinkle in the semolina flour. The water will turn cloudy and may foam a bit. Add the noodles. Stir a few times as the water comes back to a boil to keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook until they are 80% done, about 2-3 minutes less than the time indicated on the box. Drain the pasta, reserving at least 1 cup of water from the pot, but preferably 2 cups. It’s always better to have more than you need than to be left short.
- While the noodles are cooking, make the sauce. In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-low heat until hot. Add the sliced garlic and cook slowly until it has browned lightly, about 3 minutes.
- Crush the tomatoes with your hands and add them and their juices to the pan, simmer about 4 minutes until they have broken down a bit. You’ve just made a very basic marinara sauce.
- Stir in the olives, capers and red pepper flakes. Simmer another 2 minutes.
- Add the drained noodles and about ½ cup of the reserved cooking water. Simmer the noodles until they have absorbed the water in the pan and are cooked. You may need to add more water if the pan dries out too quickly. You’ll notice that the sauce actually becomes quite creamy and the flavours get a little more intense. This is because the starch in the water emulsifies the now really flavourful olive oil and helps it attach itself to every noodle. Once the penne is cooked fully and the sauce has thickened, check it for seasoning. The ingredients are fairly salt, so you may not need any more salt. Turn it out into a bowl.