2009 June: Pasta Primer

2009 June: Pasta PrimerWhen I had my cooking school in Chicago, I had to make big batches of this pasta dish for the students because they gobbled it up pretty fast. The idea behind this dish is that the spinach gets “cooked” only from the ambient heat of the pasta, and that technique keeps the dish fresh and lively. This is an easy, two-step dish, one that any restaurant can send out to the table in no time fl at. 

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings (Scale up in direct proportion)

12 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves, stemmed if necessary

½ pound Asiago or fontina cheese, shredded

6 ounces roasted red bell peppers, drained (if using canned) and sliced

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

12 ounces cavatappi pasta (or other short pasta, such as fusilli or rotini)

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup toasted pine nuts In a large bowl, combine the spinach, Asiago, roasted peppers, olive oil and garlic. Toss to combine. Set aside. (Can be prepped up to this point 3 hours ahead and held at room temperature.) Cook the pasta in an abundant amount of boiling salted water until it is al dente. Drain the pasta. Working quickly, add the pasta to the bowl with the spinach. Add the Parmesan cheese. Toss again. Divide the pasta among serving bowls. Sprinkle some pine nuts over each portion. Serve at once.

Note: In service, I would have the spinach mixture ready to go. I would cook a pasta portion (about 3 ounces dry), drain it and then toss the pasta with a portion of the spinach mixture.

To toast the pine nuts, place 1 teaspoon olive oil in a small nonstick skillet, then add the nuts. Stir to coat them with the oil. Over medium heat, cook and stir until they are golden brown. The gap between toasting the nuts and burning them is very close, so keep a close watch. While I have some space to do so, here are some of the basic steps for perfect pasta cookery:

? Pasta must be cooked in plenty of boiling, salted water. You will need 5 quarts of water and 2 teaspoons of salt for 12 ounces to 1 pound of pasta.

? Never put oil in the cooking water. If you use plenty of water the pasta will never stick together. Also, oil in the water makes the pasta slippery, destroys the pasta-starch connection and ultimately prevents the good bonding of the sauce to the pasta (the starch that rises to the surface of the pasta during cooking helps to grab the sauce once the pasta is drained).

? Drain the pasta as soon as it is al dente (and please, please, do not rinse it with water). It will continue to cook a bit due to its interior heat, so don’t push it to the limit.