Easy Seasonal Pasta Dishes
Pasta aglio olio (pasta in garlic and oil dressing) has to be the "little black dress" of all pasta dishes. You only need basic pantry ingredients - fresh garlic, olive oil and quality artisanal dried pasta - to put together this simple yet utterly satisfying dish.
It's also the "master recipe" for creating fast seasonal vegetable pasta meals. All of these dishes can be ready in 30 minutes - and very little mess to clean up!
Pasta Aglio Olio: The "Master" Recipe
Quality artisanal pasta is essential as this dish showcases the flavour of the pasta. The coarse and porous nature of artisanal pasta also enables it to better absorb the dressing.
200 g dried pasta
Water to cook pasta
Salt (for cooking the pasta)
4 - 6 cloves fresh garlic
Dried red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh chopped parsley (optional)
Step 1. Bring the water to boil in a large pot with a pasta strainer insert. Add a generous amount of salt to the water.
Step 2. Whilst the water is coming to the boil, peel and mince the garlic. Gently heat olive oil in a frying pan. Add the garlic and fry until it just turns golden. Add the dried red pepper flakes.
Step 2a. [This is when you add vegetables in the recipe variations below.] Turn off the heat if the pasta is not done yet.
Step 3. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the dried pasta. Stir gently to prevent the pasta clumping together. Replace the lid and bring to the boil as quickly as possible. Stir occasionally.
Stop the pasta cooking about 1 -2 minutes short of the recommended cooking time ie before the pasta reaches al dente.
Step 4. Turn on the heat for the frying pan. Lift the pasta insert out of the pot to drain the pasta but do not drain it completely. Tip the pasta along with some of the pasta cooking water into the pan and toss with the garlic oil over medium heat for a minute or two. The water will be absorbed by the pasta as it finishes cooking in the pan.
Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add fresh chopped parsley if desired.
Serve with simple seasonal salad.
At Step 2, you can add an anchovy fillet along with the garlic. The anchovy will "melt down" into the "sauce" and is really delicious.
I sometimes add the Malaysian dried salted fish, cut into tiny cubes, if I don't have any anchovy on hand.
Pasta With Spring Vegetables
[The quantities of vegetables in this (and the other vegetable variations) are up to you.]
- Broad beans (double-peeled)
- Cut asparagus into 0.5cm lengths.
- The slight additional effort for double-peeled broad beans takes this wonderful legume from "good for you" to "good to eat". You can do this ahead of time.
Shell the broad beans and discard the outer pods.
Bring salted water to boil in a medium-sized saucepan. Cook the broad beans for a few minutes. Young broad beans won't take more than 3 - 4 minutes.
Drain in a colander and refresh in cold water to stop them cooking.
Slip the whitish outer skin off each broad bean and place the bright green tender kernels in a bowl until ready to use.
- Shell the peas. If you are using frozen peas, don't take the peas out of the freezer until you are adding them to the pan.
Follow the steps in Pasta Aglio Olio. Add the asparagus and peas in Step 2a.
The broadbeans are already cooked. They are only added in Step 4 when you turn the heat back on for the frying pan ie just before adding the pasta to the pan.
Pasta With Braised Chicory
1 or 2 bunches red or green chicory (or a combination of both)
Cut stem and leaves of the chicory into short lengths (about 1 cm).
Add chicory in Step 2a. Fry gently for a few minutes then add enough liquid to come halfway up the depth of chicory in the pan. You can use water from the pasta pot, chicken stock or white wine. Lower the heat and allow to gently braise until tender whilst the pasta is cooking.
Pasta With Curly Kale Or Cavolo Nero
The leaf stalk of the Curly Kale can be pretty tough and fibrous. Strip the tender leaf blade by running a knife along the leaf stalk. Cut the leafy parts into pieces.
With Cavolo Nero (also called Italian Black Cabbage), remove the leaves from the stem. Cut into 0.5cm lengths.
Add the Curly Kale or Cavolo Nero in Step 2a. Fry gently and add a little liquid to the pan (just enough to cover the bottom of the pan, not as much as with chicory). Lower the heat and cook until tender whilst the pasta is cooking.
Variation: I sometimes add a small tin of tuna or salmon at the end. Break up the fish chunks roughly and allow to heat for a few minutes just before adding the pasta.
Pasta with Zucchini (Courgette) and Saffron
Soak a few strands of saffron in hot water from the pasta pot.
Cut the zucchini into thick strips (about 2.5 - 3cm in length). There's no need to peel the zucchini.
Add the zucchini in Step 2a. Fry gently for a few minutes and then add the saffron together with the soaking liquid to the pan. Add sufficient liquid to gently braise the zucchini. Lower the heat and cook until tender whilst the pasta is cooking.
Pasta with Pine Mushrooms (Saffron Milk Caps)
One of the joys of autumn is the appearance of pine mushrooms, also known as saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus).
Its firm meaty flesh is, as its botanical name suggest, absolutely delicious. I get them from my greengrocer or at farmers' markets. [Warning: do not go around picking mushrooms unless you really know what you are doing! Picking the wrong variety could be fatal!]
Do not wash them or you'll end up with a soggy mess in the pan. Instead, wipe them with a dry cloth or kitchen paper and use a pastry brush to dislodge any grit or pine needles that might be caught in the "gills".
Cut into 0.25cm thick slices.
Add the sliced mushrooms at Step 2a, just as the garlic starts to colour. No liquid is added to the pan and as such, the garlic will continue to brown as the mushrooms cook.
After adding the pasta, add only just enough liquid to deglaze the pan and coat the pasta. Remove from heat and add coarsely chopped parsley.
Pasta With Stinging Nettles & Ricotta
Stinging nettles are terrific with pasta. The flavour is similar to spinach but a great deal more intense, and they are considered even more nutritious. I get my stinging nettles from farmers' markets.
You do need to wear gloves (and long sleeved shirt!) when preparing them to avoid getting a nasty rash. Blanching gets rid of the sting.
Set a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a rapid boil. In the meantime, strip the leaves from the tough stems into a large bowl. Blanch the nettle leaves briefly.
Refresh the blanched leaves under running cold water. Squeeze the leaves to get rid of as much moisture as possible. Then loosen the leaves out with tongs or hands.
Add the nettle leaves at Step 2a, just as the garlic starts to colour. You can also add some thinly sliced fresh chillies if you wish. Add the pasta to the pan together with a bit of the pasta cooking water. Toss well. Add couple of tablespoons of ricotta cheese. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
The above ideas are just a few of the possibilities for fast pasta meals, using the best of seasonal produce. Love to hear your suggestions!