Playing with Recipes: Pasta, Risotto-Style

Emma’s popular post on the best way to cook pasta triggered a vague memory of a no-boil method I had read about years ago. A few minutes of internet sleuthing and there it was: Alain Ducasse’s risotto-like Olive Mill Pasta recipe. The thinking behind this is that the pasta cooks in the sauce as it's being made, thus capturing the starch and flavors and creating a rich and unctuous dish. Curious and hungry, I gave it a try.

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I’ll (somewhat sheepishly) admit that I had hopes that the no-boil method was going to be less fussy, in the way that no-boil lasagna is less fussy. It’s not. But it’s no more work than a risotto, which I usually find to be a enjoyable and engaging way to spend time in the kitchen.

I made several changes to Ducasse’s original recipe which you can find in the New York Times archives here. These changes mostly had to do with what I had on hand in the kitchen. I also reduced the fat which was an astonishing 3/4 cup for four portions (before adding cheese!) and still managed to produce a rich and delicious dish.

Speaking of oil and confessions: I didn’t read the recipe throughly (ha!) and mistakenly used all the oil in the first step. The original recipe calls for using some of it in the beginning to sauté the onion and the rest to be stirred in at the end just before serving. I’m intrigued by this as I’m sure it influences the final texture and highlights the taste of olive oil. Next time!

According to Ducasse, this method works best with a high-quality, hard-wheat, small-cut pasta in shapes like penne or fusilli. He urges us not use spaghetti, for example. I used an obscure Italian brand that I received as a gift which is star-shaped and it worked very well. I’m curious if this method will work with the usual grocery-store pasta and will experiment with that next.

Risotto-style Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes, Arugula and Goat Cheese

1/4 cup olive oil

2 T butter

I medium onion, minced

1/4 pound waxy potatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick

4 to 5 cups light chicken or vegetable stock

14 oz small-cut pasta

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed

1 bunch of scallions, trimmed, and cut into1-inch pieces

1/2 cup white wine, room temperature if possible

2 cups small, ripe cherry tomatoes, stems removed and rinsed

2 cups well-washed arugula

4 oz soft goat cheese, cut into cherry tomato-sized chunks

1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

Heat oil and butter in a 3-quart sauce pan or dutch oven. When butter melts, add onions and potatoes. Cook over medium heat until they begin to turn golden.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, bring the stock to a gentle simmer.

Add the pasta to the onions, sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir gently to coat with the oil. Add about 1 1/2 cups of stock and the garlic clove and cook, stirring gently, until most of the stock has been absorbed. Add the scallions and another cup of stock and cook gently, stirring occasionally. Keep adding stock as the liquid is absorbed and stirring.

Taste a few pieces of pasta now and then to test doneness. You’re going for a chewy, not mushy, texture.
When the pasta is almost done (approx 15 minutes), turn off heat. Remove garlic clove, pour in wine and tomatoes and stir gently. Taste for salt and pepper. Cover pot and let sit a few minutes to absorb wine and heat tomatoes.

Meanwhile, scatter arugula on a platter.

Gently fold in 2/3 of the cheese into the pasta and immediately spoon over the arugula. Dot with remaining cheese and sprinkle with basil. Serve up and eat with pleasure!

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Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.

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