Stop Cooking Pasta in So Much Water
We are lucky to have indoor plumbing, but you don’t have to waste.
If you look at any package of pasta or even macaroni and cheese, the first step is: bring water to a boil. But there a better way to cook pasta, one that doesn’t involve wasting all that water.
In California for the last 8 years, there is a lot of interest in the weather. And specifically, droughts. This mindset has made me think about how I use water in all situations. Is it worth using water to clean out that jar of peanut butter to recycle it? When I wash lettuce, should I haul the water outside to water a plant? Are paper plates and napkins better than washing ceramic and cloth with water? And my least favorite, is it okay to let my hot water run for three minutes before the water feels hot because my kitchen is so far from the water heater? Will the U.S. ever figure out a system for greywater, and not send all our water waste into the sewer?
Some of these are problems for another day.
I figure I should start making an effort to use less water, where I can easily make the change and where it won’t even affect my life in any way. And maybe it will take fewer steps. And I won’t have to dirty a strainer anymore!
Let’s cook pasta with just enough water.
Cooking with less water isn’t new, of course; most good ideas keep coming back. They have been cooking pasta like this in Italy for many, many years.
Think back a hundred years, if you had to haul all your water into your house, would you be pouring it right down the drain after 15 minutes?
In 2002 Alain Ducasse published a recipe in the N.Y. Times, where he cooks pasta with the technique of risotto, heating warm broth or stock separately and then adding it to the pasta in small portions as the pasta absorbs the liquid.
In 2013 Martha Stewart posted a recipe for “One Pot Pasta” that simplified the method, but maybe too much. It works, but you can improve the flavors by sautéing items instead of just boiling them. And my experience preparing the recipe was heavy on the onions and too many tomato skins. And, the basil looks nice for the picture, but it tastes better if you chop it and add it at the end.
Here are the basics to make it yourself.
You will want a large wide pot or Dutch oven.
Sauté any vegetables and meats that you want in your dish first. Specifically vegetables like onions, garlic and peppers that transform by cooking them with oil, instead of just boiling in water. I like to sauté chicken and then remove it from the pan, so it doesn’t overcook while you are cooking the pasta. Remove your sautéed meat and vegetables from the pan; you don’t need to clean it then add your pasta and water. Martha’s recipe uses 12 ounces of pasta and 4.5 cups of water. For a “short cut” like penne, I start with two times the amount of water for pasta, so I measure the pasta pour it in the pan and then fill up the container two times with the water, adding it to the pan. The most important thing to remember is that you can always add water, but you can’t take it back. Add salt to your pasta, about one teaspoon per pound, so that the salt gets absorbed into the pasta as it cooks.
Over medium-low heat stir the pot occasionally. If you use a “long cut” of pasta like spaghetti, you will need to stir it more in the beginning until the strands separate. While the pasta is cooking, you can add in vegetables that need to become tender, cooking in the water for a few minutes before it is all absorbed, like carrots or broccoli, or wait until near the end for quick cooking vegetables like tomatoes and spinach.
Test the pasta and add more water and salt if needed
Once the pasta is tender, you can add back in the sautéed meats and vegetables from the first step. If you want a cream sauce, you can add in a few tablespoons of cream now, or add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and continue to stir. The starch from the pasta will coat everything and create its own sauce. To finish the dish, add a handful of fresh chopped herbs, a handful of grated Parmesan cheese and fresh ground pepper.
Eat and enjoy!
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard