Pasta comes in all sizes and shapes, all of them designed with a purpose. Pastas in long strands — including spaghetti and linguine — are best paired with smoother sauces. Tube-shaped pastas — such as penne, rigatoni and macaroni — team up well with chunky sauces. And pasta boasting nooks and crannies — like fusilli — are perfect for sauces with bits of meat and vegetables.
Whichever type you're cooking, you want to make sure you cook your pasta properly. Undercook it and the pasta is chalky and tough. Overcook it and you get mush. What you're aiming for is al dente, Italian for "to the tooth." It's just a way of saying that properly cooked pasta is tender all the way through, but still ever so slightly firm to the bite.
Of course, since pasta shapes, sizes and thicknesses vary widely, the proper cooking time for each pasta variety also varies. So let's cover the basics of pasta cooking, regardless of variety.
Plenty of water is important. This prevents the pasta from sticking and mostly eliminates the need to stir during cooking. For 1 pound of pasta, you'll want to boil 6 quarts of water (though 4 quarts will do if you don't have a pot large enough). The water also needs to be well salted. For every 3 quarts of water, you'll need 1 tablespoon of kosher salt.
After adding the pasta to the boiling water, give it a stir or two (and that should be enough). If you're boiling long strands, push them down gently in the middle to make sure the ends are submerged, too. And by the way, do not add oil to the water. The pasta will end up oily, and the sauce will just slide off.
Pasta should never wait for the sauce (once cooked, it doesn't improve with age), so don't start cooking it until your sauce is either well along or finished.
For cooking times, read the packaging and follow the suggested times. But don't follow them blindly. It's also important to check the tenderness of the pasta while it is cooking. All you have to do is spear a single piece and bite into it. If it's very chewy or tough, keep cooking it. If there's just a tiny bit of chewiness, it's ready to be drained.
But before you drain it, scoop out and set aside a little of the cooking liquid. And don't rinse your pasta after draining it. That washes away the starch, which is what helps your sauce stick to the pasta. Now just add your pasta to the sauce, where it will finish cooking. And if your sauce is too thick, a few tablespoons of the cooking water you scooped out are just the thing.
The beauty of a pasta dish is that it rarely takes longer to throw together than the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta. And a hearty pasta dish is just the thing to warm up a cold and wintry night.
FUSILLI WITH ITALIAN SAUSAGE, PEAS AND CREAMY TOMATO SAUCE
Start to finish: 1 hour (30 minutes active)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3/4 pound loose sweet or hot Italian sausage
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted)
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
2/3 cup heavy cream
12 ounces fusilli pasta
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
3 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Shredded fresh basil, to garnish
In a large saucepan or stockpot, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil.
While the water is heating, in a large skillet over medium, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the sausage and cook, breaking it up with a spoon and stirring, until the sausage is just cooked through, about 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Add the cream and simmer for 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the 2 tablespoons of salt and the pasta to the pot of water. Stir well and boil the pasta, following the instructions on the back on the package, until almost but not quite al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, and add it to the skillet, along with the peas and half of the cheese.
Simmer until the pasta is al dente, adding some of the pasta cooking water if necessary to thin the sauce to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper, then divide between 4 serving bowls. Top each portion with some of the remaining cheese and the basil.
Nutrition information per serving: 1,040 calories; 510 calories from fat (49 per cent of total calories); 56 g fat (24 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 140 mg cholesterol; 96 g carbohydrate; 12 g fiber; 18 g sugar; 40 g protein; 2,360 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."