The magical elixir: Pasta water

P1000179Any student of pasta cookery can tell you that pasta water, that starchy saline solution that can be retrieved from the pasta pot right when the noodles are just about cooked, is one of the most precious commodities of the Italian kitchen. Lots has been written about its ability to thicken a sauce, or to turn one that’s not quite coming together into silky gorgeousness. But, magically, it can also thin and lighten a sauce that might otherwise go in the old-fashioned paper-paste direction. Example:

Fettucine with radicchio and gorgonzola. Doesn’t that sound good?

I’ve been combining radicchio with gorgonzola for so long now, I can’t remember where I first encountered it. I particularly love scattering the two, with nothing else, on top of homemade pizza. So when I needed a quick dinner recently and had a cheese drawer full of one and crisper full of the other, I knew just what to do. Pasta.

Still, blue cheese sauce sounded like it could head south fast—maybe a tasty first bite, but surely by the end of the bowl you’d be feeling overly-full and slightly awful about yourself. Enter pasta water.

I typically start a cream or cheese sauce by swirling together some butter and cream over high heat, until it combines and bubbles a bit. Then I lower the heat and add the cheese. This is the point where the sauce looks delicious for a moment—and then about 1 minute later it already begins to turn into glue, and threatens to go greasy. A splash of pasta water works its miracle—the sauce thins out and gives it just enough body to cling to the noodles. Here’s where you would add the radicchio, and then the noodles; a squirt of some fresh lemon juice and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper further punctuates this sauce as something zesty and bright, rather than leaden. Even my Jack Spratt of a husband had seconds.

Fettucine with radicchio and gorgonzola for roughly 2 (I say roughly because you can just barely increase the sauce amounts and double the pasta amount and arrive at pasta for 4… this is just more of the magic of pasta cookery)

2 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup heavy cream

a large handful crumbled gorgonzola

a large handful shredded radicchio

1/2 lb fettucine

A squirt of fresh lemon juice

Salt (as needed) and freshly-ground black pepper

Put on a large pot of salted water for the noodles. Meanwhile, combine the butter and cream in a saute pan large enough to eventually hold the noodles. Boil for about a minute, then lower the heat and begin to add the cheese, swirling pan, over low heat. When the noodles are just about done, retrieve some pasta water and toss it into the pan with the sauce, swirling to combine. Add the radicchio and toss. Drain noodles, retaining additional pasta water. Toss noodles with sauce until well-combined. Taste and add lemon juice, salt, and pepper, or even additional pasta water, as needed.


One thought on “The magical elixir: Pasta water

  1. Thanks for this great blog entry. Tonight I cooked a pasta dish (following a recipe my friend Diane posted on FB) and used some of the pasta water. The dish was already very good, but the addition of pasta water made it even better. I know this is only semi-related but the title of your blog entry made me think of it: in China the water pasta is boiled in is literally considered an elixir that aids in digestion: 喝原汤化原食.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s