You might think that of all the things out there that can be cooked, pasta is perhaps among the very easiest to do. After all, even when it’s claimed that someone is such a horrible cook that he/she can’t even boil water, we know otherwise.
But just as there are lots of ways to run a railroad, there are equally as many ways to cook pasta. And I’m not even referring to the literally countless sauces that can accompany Italy’s national dish (or at least the one thing that unites that country, made up as it is of tribal peoples with such disparate histories, mores and methods that something as seemingly simple as making a gesture of hello with the wave of a hand can vary from town to town; but you’re not here for a history of the Italian peoples – today, anyway).
Most of the water boiling and pasta cooking I’ve witnessed would make Marcella Hazan wince (for those who aren’t aware of la padrina of Italian cooking, click on whatever site you buy books from – a sad indictment of those of us, including me, who can’t be bothered to go to an actual bookstore much anymore – and immediately type in The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating. Or just type her name. But by all means, buy it now.
With all due respect to those who put olive oil in the cooking water, not to mention those who refuse to add salt once the water comes to the boil and those who rinse the cooked pasta with water (just three of the most egregious transgressions I’ve witnessed), there actually is a “right” way to prepare for the rendezvous between scalding water and fresh or dried pasta. But that’s not why we’re here.
Instead, we’re here to explore another “right” way to cook pasta, one that doesn’t even have to include H2O. As the title of this thing suggests, pasta can be brought to a perfect state of readiness by simmering it gently. I take no credit for this discovery, because it’s not mine to take. There was an article in The New York Times food section a number of weeks ago about this old technique. When I read it, I thought OK, but so what? So what, indeed, until the night when I had mistakenly thawed some homemade chicken stock before realizing that I had nothing to bathe in it.
The prospect of throwing out something I spent time making wasn’t palatable, so I figured giving the simmer method a try made sense. And just as advertised, the rigatoni I tossed in that gently bubbling sauté pan of stock and peas (the peas actually went in at the very last instant) was lovely: gently chewy, and practically saturated with the essence of the chicken stock. And it didn’t require a really big pot of boiling water and the resultant extra cleanup that the more conventional way of cooking pasta does.
Given that the Italians do a great deal of their cookery on the cook top rather than below, it stands to reason that they’d find another way to keep their pasta preparation fresh and interesting. Who wants to boil water every day, after all?
HERE’S WHAT TO DO
There are any number of variations on this theme, from the cooking liquid to the ingredients (yes, you can indeed use water, in combination with stock, wine, whatever, or exclusively, but if you do only use water, I’d suggest that you may as well just boil it like usual because the pasta will only gently suck up water, nothing more; in that case, you had better have put together an awesome sauce to dress it). Just about anything you might be inclined to toss with pasta can probably be simmered with it using this simple method.
First, decide whether you want to make any kind of aromatic base before putting in your liquid. I’ve done variations of the standard diced onion-carrot-celery in olive oil or even rendered duck fat prior to adding stock, but you certainly can skip the sautéing if you’re pressed for time; the fact that you’re cooking the pasta in a tasty liquid will make up for disregarding any sauce building blocks (perdone, Marcella).
Heat a couple of inches of your liquid in a sauté pan until it comes to somewhere between a simmer and a boil (if you need to concentrate your liquid some, because, for example, you have more water than stock, by all means, roil it a bit).
Add the pasta, and stir it around really well in order to coat each and every piece thoroughly. Pay attention to the temperature for just a minute or two, and once the liquid is at the simmer, stir a bit more. Don’t worry, it’s not like risotto, so you needn’t constantly tend to it. (Aside alert: I don’t care what the revisionist risotto mavens claim, risotto needs to be stirred every minute or so.)
The actual cooking time will vary, of course, depending on many things (type of pasta, fresh or dried, crowding in the pan, etc.), but won’t be much different from the boiling method. Test once the pasta starts to look like it’s nearing doneness.
And take into consideration whether you’ll be adding anything to the pasta, like peas (they’ll need seconds), dried beans (that’s right, pasta and beans are a great and traditional pairing), sausage, whatever. Adjust timing accordingly.
If the pan is becoming too dry, add more liquid. But be careful. Resist the urge to keep the pasta bobbing in liquid. The idea with Italian pasta sauces is that less is much, much more than more. By the time the pasta is done, you should ideally be left with not much more than a shiny coating on the pasta and a few tablespoons of luscious liquid. It’s not a soup, after all.
A note on the beans: Because dried beans cook at vastly different rates depending on age, among other things, it’s best to cook them until they are done in a separate sauce pan before adding them to the nearly finished pasta. The extra time in the pan won’t hurt them. And don’t toss that bean cooking liquid out. Add some to the stock or whatever else you’re using to cook the pasta. You’ll get a bit more depth in the resulting sauce.
And there you have it. No colander necessary.