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As the days get shorter and the weather has a real snap to it, the time for comfort food is here. For me, pasta is the ultimate cool-weather treat. Served with a salad and a bottle of red wine, what could be better?

Cooking

When cooking pasta, it should be slightly undercooked. Not only does it taste better, but it might be healthier for you. Some sources claim that it has a lower glycemic index than well-cooked pasta.

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First, bring a large pot of water to the boil, then add lots of salt. The water should taste slightly salty. When the water is at a rolling boil, add just enough pasta for each serving: 3 ounces per person is considered the right amount, but some people like more. Once the pasta is in the water, stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick. Cook until al dente. If you bite into a piece, it will feel undercooked. Visually, you will find a little ring of white inside the pasta where you have bitten it. Another clue is the cooking time on the package. Cook for one minute less than the shorter amount of time.

Serving

iStock

Have your sauce simmering beside your pasta pot and, with tongs, take the pasta out of the water and toss it in the sauce. Add ½ cup or so of pasta cooking water and let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce. This makes starches, fats and proteins confidently amalgamate together. Toss everything around, drizzle some olive oil over and, if desired, add grated cheese, such as Grana Padano, which is less pricey than Reggiano. Serve immediately. Pasta waits for no one.

Choosing a shape

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Pasta shapes matter. Take orecchiette, one of my favourite shapes. As they are cup-shaped they are the perfect receptacle for peas or other small vegetables, while penne would be right for cut green beans, asparagus or other vegetables sliced in lengths.

Long thin pasta, such as spaghettini or angel hair, demand light sauces that do not mask the pasta. Wider pastas, like fettuccine or tagliatelle, can handle tomato-based, heavier sauces. Sauces that have small chunks of meat or vegetables are best with short pastas, such as penne, fusilli or orecchiette. As a rule of thumb, if all ingredients will stick when it is twirled on a fork use long pasta, otherwise use short. Ridged pastas are best for baking because the ridges hold the sauce.

Lastly, when it comes to tomato sauce, look for San Marzano DOP or organic canned tomatoes for the best results. You will be surprised at the difference it makes.

Basic Marinara Sauce

Serves 4

A good marinara sauce is a must in every kitchen. It is the basis of many pasta dishes and is even sensational on its own. This is a classic sauce that never fails. It will keep for two weeks, and freezes beautifully. Serve with any long pasta. Good marinara jarred sauces are available, but it is actually quite easy to make your own and homemade always feels good.

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Variations: To turn this into an arrabbiata sauce, add about 2 teaspoons chili flakes and serve with penne.

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped onions
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
  • 2 28-oz (796 ml) cans whole San Marzano tomatoes
  • 6 leaves of basil, sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Crush tomatoes with your hands or puree in food processor along with their juice.

Place oil in a large sauté pan or wide pot over medium-low heat. Add onions and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for 1 minute, and then add tomatoes with their juice. Raise heat and bring to boil.

Reduce heat to medium-low and let sauce bubble gently for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until thickened. Add basil leaves and season with salt and pepper.

Meat Ragu Sauce with Spaghetti

Makes enough sauce for 2 lbs of spaghetti

The other basic pasta sauce is ragu, a thick, rich meat sauce that is generally served with spaghetti. In Italy, there are as many versions as there are home cooks. This version is from my Italian cooking classes of long ago and I have never made a better one. This can be frozen for use in another meal.

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 12 ounces ground beef
  • 12 ounces ground pork
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 2 28‑oz. (796 ml) cans San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes, or more to taste, optional
  • 2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 lb. spaghetti
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese

In a large sauce pan or wide pot, heat oil on medium-high heat, add onions and cook, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute.

Stir in beef and pork and sauté until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Pour in wine and boil until reduced by half. Add tomatoes, beef stock, chili flakes, if desired, and oregano. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for one hour. Add basil, salt and pepper and simmer 15 minutes longer or until sauce is thick.

In a large pot of salted water, boil spaghetti until al dente, about 10 to 12 minutes. Drain and toss with half of sauce, reserving the remainder for another meal. Serve cheese separately.

One-Pot Pasta

Serves 4

An easy start for pasta cooking. Just use one pot. Harold McGee, the food scientist, and author of Keys to Good Cooking, proved through experimentation that starting pasta in cold water gets the same results as in boiling water but with several benefits. It takes slightly less time to cook, and you won’t have a big pasta pot to clean. The leftover water will be full of the starch that thickens pasta sauces and helps them adhere to the pasta in the traditional Italian manner. The last tip: By stirring the pasta and sauce vigorously at the end, you will obtain a better texture. Use imported Italian cheese for grating because it has better flavour than North American versions. I use this method when I am in a hurry, but prefer boiling the pasta separately.

Optional add-ins: anchovies, tuna, capers, lentils, kidney beans, peas, chickpeas, hot sauce, leftover braised meat, or chicken. Don’t overload – there is a subtlety to Italian food.

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  • 12 ounces pasta of any shape or size
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, chopped (optional)
  • 2 28-ounce cans of tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil or oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoons chili flakes or to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano

Take a large skillet or wide pot that will fit your pasta. Add the pasta to it. If it is spaghetti and does not fit, break it in half. Cover with salted cold water. Bring to a boil, on high heat, stirring occasionally, to break up the pasta. Boil until al dente – 16 to 18 minutes from start to finish. Strain into a bowl to reserve the pasta water, which will be starchy. Use this to give texture to the sauce.

Add oil to the same skillet on medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, if using, and sauté until the onion is translucent – about three minutes. Drain and discard the liquid from the tomatoes. Add all the tomatoes, crushing them as you stir them in, then add back in 1 cup of the tomato juice. Add basil and chili. Bring to a boil and simmer vigorously for 10 minutes or until thickened. Add in ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water.

Stir in any optional ingredients and cook until heated through. Season well with salt and pepper. Toss with pasta in a bowl, stirring vigorously. Sprinkle with cheese.

Fettuccine with Burst Tomatoes and Shrimp

Serves 4

One of my best food memories is of a meal I had in Puglia. It was at a winery and we had a simple lunch that began with focaccia studded with tomatoes, the winery’s olive oil and olives and the wonderful burrata cheese that oozes cream as soon as you cut into it. This was followed by pasta with tomatoes and shrimp. Because tomatoes were just out of season, they were flash cooked so their flavour intensified. The shrimp were fresh out of the water. We ended the meal with taralli, and bitter black coffee. It was magic.

You can use spinach, Swiss chard, kale, rapini or dandelion greens in this dish. We used a mixture. Bread crumbs are used often in pasta dishes, instead of cheese, when there is a seafood ingredient to give added texture. Traditionally, cheese is not used with seafood. We tried this with both long and short pasta and found that long pasta pulled the ingredients together better, but you can use short if that is what you have on hand. Omit shrimp for a vegan take.

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  • 12 ounces fettuccine
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes
  • 1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 12 ounces stemmed mixed greens, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chili flakes
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ cup toasted bread crumbs

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add fettuccine and boil for 10 to 12 minutes or until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking water.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cherry tomatoes and sauté until tomatoes burst, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp and cook until they turn light pink, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in greens and chili flakes and sauté until the greens wilt, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add pasta to skillet and toss together. Add enough pasta cooking water to moisten everything, up to 1 cup. Season well with salt and pepper. Sprinkle over bread crumbs and serve immediately.

Penne with Sausage and Peppers

Serves 4

A Southern Italian take on pasta with huge flavour. I like to use hot Italian sausage, but mild works too.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 pound hot Italian sausage, casing removed, and crumbled
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • ½ pound mixed mushrooms, thickly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 2 cups canned tomatoes, pureed
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 12 ounces penne

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sauté for 2 minutes, add garlic and sauté until softened about 1 minute. Add peppers and sauté until peppers are slightly browned on edges, about 3 minutes. Add crumbled sausage and sauté until no longer pink, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and oregano and continue to sauté until mushrooms are juicy.

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Pour in wine, bring to boil, add tomato puree and simmer for 20 minutes or until sausages and peppers are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place large pot of salted water on high heat while sauce is cooking. When water comes to boil, add pasta, and cook according to package directions. Drain and toss with sauce adding in a little pasta cooking water at the same time. Sprinkle with parsley. Finish with cheese.

Pasta with Spiced Cauliflower

Serves 4 as an appetizer, 2 as a main course

Because it was December when I was in Rome the pastas were hearty and rich. Anchovies were in everything from pastas to salads – the best being puntarella, a type of chicory – and my favourite pasta was cauliflower with anchovies, a dynamite combination. This dish highlights cauliflower’s crunchy texture and great flavour.

  • 1 small head cauliflower
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 8 anchovies, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 8 ounces orecchiette or conchiglie (shells)
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan

Break cauliflower into florets and place in food processor. Pulse until cauliflower is a little smaller than the orecchiette. Reserve.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add orecchiette and boil until al dente. Drain well reserving half cup pasta cooking water.

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While pasta is boiling, heat oil in frying pan over medium-high heat. Add cauliflower, anchovies, garlic, and chili flakes together until cauliflower is al dente about 2 to 3 minutes.

Toss in the orecchiette add about ¼ cup pasta cooking water and grated Parmesan. Toss everything together, taste for seasoning and serve.

Tagliatelle Cacio e Peppe

Vladislav Chusov/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Serves 4

This recipe is a great Roman favourite, dating back to the cucina povera tradition. It can be prepared with any long pasta, although tagliatelle or a slimmer version called tonnarelli work best. Although the sauce is often made with grated Pecorino alone, we found that version to be quite salty, so we opted for this mixed cheese take from the St. Regis Grand Hotel in Rome. It is best to freshly grate the cheese.

  • 12 ounces fresh tagliatelle or dried tagliatelle made with eggs
  • 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1 cup grated ricotta salata
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley

Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to boil (you will only need a little salt because Pecorino Romano cheese is salty). Add pasta, stir once, and cook until al dente (about 3 minutes for fresh and 9 for dried).

Combine cheeses in a small pot, reserving 1/2 cup. Add 1 cup pasta cooking water over low heat, stirring occasionally to help cheeses melt. You can use an immersion blender to help emulsify the sauce if desired. Stir in remaining cheese for texture. Keep sauce warm over low heat.

Drain pasta and toss with butter and cheese sauce. Season well with freshly ground pepper to taste and garnish with chopped parsley.

Fusilli with Spiced Chicken Ragout

Serves 4

This is a strongly flavoured Sicilian dish with a touch of Moroccan spice in it. The Arabs ruled Sicily from the 9th to the 11th century and their cuisine strongly influenced the Sicilians. The sauce is rather like a rich, spiced chicken Bolognese.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound boned and skinned chicken thighs
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup sliced leeks
  • ½ cup carrots, finely chopped
  • ½ cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock, homemade or low sodium
  • 1 cup canned tomatoes, chopped
  • 1-inch piece cinnamon stick
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • Pinch chili flakes
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • 12 ounces short pasta of choice cooked according to package directions.
  • 1 ounce shaved Parmesan cheese, optional

Heat oil in sauté pan or high-sided skillet on medium-high heat. Season thighs with salt and pepper. Add thighs to pan and sauté until browned on each side, about 2 minutes per side. Remove thighs.

Add leeks, carrots and celery and sauté for 3 minutes or until softened slightly. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Pour in red wine and bring to boil. Boil until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Add stock, tomatoes, cinnamon stick, star anise, coriander and ginger, thyme, and chili flakes. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove cover and add thighs. Cover again and cook for 20 to 25 minutes or until thighs are cooked through. Remove cinnamon and star anise. Remove thighs and shred. If sauce is too thin, bring to boil and reduce until slightly thickened.

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Return chicken to pan and add baby spinach. Cook for 1 minute longer or until spinach is wilted. Season sauce well with salt and pepper to taste.

While sauce is cooking, place large pot of salted water on high heat. When water comes to boil, add pasta, and cook according to package directions. Drain. Add ¼ cup past cooking water to sauce along with pasta and toss together. Top with shaved Parmesan if desired.

Baked Rigatoni with Ricotta and Sausage

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Serves 6 or more

This is like a rich five-cheese mac and cheese with sausage. You can omit the sausage for a vegetarian option. The chilies balance the richness of all the cheese. Serve a small portion as an appetizer before a lighter main course, or make this dish the star of dinner. If you don’t have all these cheese, make your own mixture with what you have. However you blend it, you need 1 lb. cheese. Ridged pastas are better for oven-baked dishes because the sauce clings to the ridges.

  • 1 lb. rigatoni
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 mild Italian sausages, meat removed from casings (14 ounces)
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 8 ounces ricotta
  • 1 4-ounce ball buffalo mozzarella, sliced
  • 8 ounces grated fontina
  • 4 ounces grated ricotta salata
  • 1 cup green peas, defrosted if frozen
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil. Add rigatoni and cook for 6 minutes or until pasta is very undercooked. It will continue to cook when baked. Drain, reserving 1 cup cooking water separately.

Heat oil in skillet over medium high heat. Crumble in sausage meat and cook, breaking up with a fork, until it loses its pinkness, 4 to 5 minutes. Add chili flakes and cook for 1 more minute. Add wine and bring to boil. Boil until wine is reduced by half, about 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in reserved cooking water. Return to a boil then remove from heat.

Transfer contents of skillet to a bowl and allow to cool. Stir in cream, milk, ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, fontina, ricotta salata and green peas. Stir in pasta. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Oil a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Pour pasta mixture into dish and dot with butter. Cover with foil. Bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle with parmesan. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes longer or until mixture is bubbling and cheese is golden on top.

Oven-Baked Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Smoked Cheese

Serves 4

This was a favourite with my recipe testers, and I am often asked for the recipe. Smoked cheese is widely available and always a great addition to pasta dishes. If you can’t find it, use fontina or provolone. Omit pancetta for a vegetarian option and add an extra tablespoon of oil.

  • 1/2 cup chopped pancetta
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large Spanish or sweet onions, sliced thinly
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 12 ounces short pasta of choice
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan
  • 8 ounces grated smoked mozzarella or other smoked cheese
  • 2 tablespoons butter to dot over pasta

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Fry pancetta in a small dry skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes or until crisped and golden. Drain on paper towels and reserve.

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Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and salt them immediately. Sauté for 3 minutes or until they are coated in oil. Turn heat to medium-low and continue to cook and stir onions for 30 to 40 minutes or until they become a golden, thick mass. Season with salt and pepper.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and boil 6 minutes. It will continue to cook in the oven. Drain immediately and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in cream, butter, 1/2 cup Parmesan, onion mixture and smoked cheese. Finish with pancetta. Season well with salt and pepper.

Transfer to a buttered 2-litre baking dish, sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup grated Parmesan and dot with butter. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until pasta is hot and top is slightly browned.

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