You can almost feel sorry for pasta sauces that are not made with tomatoes. They are ignored, forgotten, belittled. Though endless in variety, they are like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Pasta: They don't get to play any non-tomato pasta-sauce games.
So this week, I decided to take a look at these unsung heroes, the panoply of pasta sauces that are made without tomatoes.
I wanted the sauces I made to be quick and simple, too. Nothing too strenuous; I wanted them to be sauces you could whip up while you are getting the water ready to boil for the pasta.
Non-tomato sauces can be loaded with seafood, vegetables, nuts and herbs; they can be made with olive oil, butter and cream.
But I didn't want to make my sauces with cream. Though cream is utterly delicious with pasta, it is also a little too easy. More to the point, it has more calories than I wanted to consume — especially considering I was going to be making five different kinds of pasta.
For my first fast and easy tomato-free pasta sauce, I made the fastest and easiest sauce there is. Spaghettini aglio e olio — spaghettini with oil and garlic — is universal throughout Italy; it is perhaps the most comforting of all Italian comfort foods, a simple blend of olive oil, garlic, parsley, crushed red pepper and plenty of salty grated cheese.
According to the late famed cookbook author Marcella Hazan, spaghettini with oil and garlic was created in Rome and quickly spread throughout the country. It was then, and still is now, a hugely popular late-night snack — but it also makes a fine lunch or dinner.
I next made a variation on that same dish, but the variation makes an enormous difference.
One of my favorite pasta sauces is made by dissolving anchovy fillets in hot olive oil. Spaghetti is tossed in the flavored oil, which gives it a rich and rounded briny flavor. Spaghetti with capers takes that idea and adds a different kind of brininess, this time from capers.
The capers add a pungency to the dish, which is great if you, like me, love capers. But if you find the taste of capers unpleasant, you could leave them out and just make the spaghetti with anchovies.
Both are excellent, and don't forget to serve them with Parmesan cheese. You might think that a salty cheese would be unnecessary with anchovies and capers, but it brings the flavors together. It is like sprinkling the dish with magic.
The most popular pasta sauce right now among those in the know is probably cacio e pepe. Made from cheese (cacio) and pepper (pepe) and very little else (olive oil), the sauce is ridiculously fast and easy to make.
You don't even cook it. You mix together good cheese — the quality of the cheese counts with this dish — a healthy amount of ground pepper and olive oil. Then you stir in hot, just-cooked pasta and a little bit of the water you cooked it in.
That's the whole dish. And it could not taste better.
For my next fast tomato-free pasta sauce, I went in a different direction. I went nuts.
Nutty pasta isn't even Italian; it is a French dish served most often in Provence. It is pesto with a twist. Instead of basil, it is made with parsley and mint (which is related to basil). Instead of pine nuts alone, it is made with pine nuts and almonds and pistachios.
Add some olive oil and cheese, and you have something special.
And then there is the matter of the optional orange zest. A light sprinkling of orange zest makes a delightful citrus counterpoint to the richness of the nuts. If you ask me, it shouldn't even be optional. But no one wants to hear about mandatory orange zest, I suppose.
The last sauce I made was the most complex, but it still takes no more time to make than it does to cook the pasta, if you count the time to bring the water to a boil.
Pappardelle with broccoli raab and mushrooms has a wonderfully fresh and unspoiled taste. A mixture of mushrooms is sautéed in oil that is flavored with garlic and fresh rosemary. Broccoli raab, which is also known as rapini, is boiled separately, and then the wide noodles of pappardelle are cooked in the same broccoli raab water.
Finally, everything is tossed together: the mushrooms, the broccoli raab and the pasta, along with an inevitable sprinkling of good cheese. It is a dish that is hearty and satisfying.
Who needs tomatoes?
SPAGHETTINI WITH OIL AND GARLIC (SPAGHETTINI AGLIO E OLIO)
1 pound spaghettini, vermicelli or thin spaghetti
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
6 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or more to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 cup freshly grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Stir the spaghettini into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently, and cook, semi-covered, until the pasta is tender but still very firm, about 6 minutes for spaghettini or vermicelli and 7 minutes for thin spaghetti.
Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, and cook, shaking the skillet, until pale golden, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, and add the crushed red pepper. Ladle about 1 1/2 cups of the pasta-cooking water into the sauce, then add the parsley, the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and salt to taste, and bring to a boil.
Fish out the pasta with a large wire skimmer or tongs, and drop it directly into the sauce in the skillet. Bring the sauce and pasta to a simmer, tossing to coat pasta with sauce. Cook about 1 minute.
Remove the skillet from the heat, and toss in the grated cheese, if using. Check the seasoning, adding salt and crushed red pepper if necessary. Serve immediately in warm bowls.
Nutrition information per serving: 443 calories; 17 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 10 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 58 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 234 mg sodium; 196 mg calcium.
(Adapted from "Lidia's Favorite Recipes" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali)
CACIO E PEPE
1 pound pasta, your choice
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano, plus more as needed for serving
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons black pepper, plus more if needed
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta, and stir to submerge and separate the pieces. Cook uncovered until the pasta is just tender (al dente), according to the instructions on the package. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water for finishing your sauce.
Drain the pasta in a colander. Pour the drained pasta into a heated serving bowl. Add the cheese, oil and pepper. Stir until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Add about 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking water to moisten the pasta slightly — it should appear creamy, not oily. If necessary, add a bit more of the pasta water.
Taste, and stir in more pepper if needed (pepper should be one of the main flavors). Serve immediately, with additional cheese on the side.
Nutrition information per serving: 589 calories; 30 g fat; 9g saturated fat; 39 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 58 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 935 mg sodium; 422 mg calcium.
(Adapted from "Pasta" by Gianni Scappin, Alberto Vanoli and Francesco Tonelli)
PAPPARDELLE WITH BROCCOLI RAAB AND MUSHROOMS
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 sprig rosemary, about
4 inches long
12 ounces mushrooms, preferably a variety, sliced
1 bunch of broccoli raab (also called rapini), trimmed of tough stems
12 ounces dried pappardelle or dried egg fettucine
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and rosemary, and cook until the garlic is fragrant and the rosemary starts to sizzle, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and cook until they start to brown, about 10 minutes; shake the pan and stir often. Remove from the heat, and keep warm.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the broccoli raab, and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove the broccoli raab, and set aside (keep the water boiling). Add the pasta to the same boiling water, and cook until al dente, according to the instructions on the package. Drain the pasta, leaving a little water clinging to it.
Add the pasta, broccoli raab and cheese to the skillet with the mushrooms, and toss together. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 474 calories; 15 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 7 mg cholesterol; 17 g protein; 67 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 216 mg sodium; 144 mg calcium.
(Recipe from "The Rose Pistola Cookbook" by Reed Hearon and Peggy Knickerbocker)
SPAGHETTI WITH CAPERS
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 or 3 anchovy fillets
2 garlic cloves, peeled but whole
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
12 ounces spaghetti
Heat the oil in a pan, add the anchovy and garlic, and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the anchovies have dissolved and the garlic has turned golden brown. This will take several minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat, discard the garlic and add the capers. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of salted, boiling water until al dente, then drain, toss with the sauce and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 469 calories; 17 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 12 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 627 mg sodium; 55 mg calcium.
(Adapted from "The Silver Spoon," which has no listed author)
2 ounces almonds
2 ounces pine nuts
2 ounces shelled pistachios
Leaves from 1 bunch parsley
Leaves from 1 bunch mint
12 ounces spaghetti
3 tablespoons olive oil
Parmesan cheese, for grating
Zest from 1/2 orange (optional)
Put the almonds, pine nuts, pistachio, parsley and mint into a food processor, and chop until fine but not completely pulverized — it should still have a bit of texture.
Cook the spaghetti in boiling water until al dente, according to the package directions. Drain. Toss with the nut paste, olive oil, cheese and zest, if using. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 385 calories; 16 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 1 g cholesterol; 13 g protein; 50 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 30 mg sodium; 73 g calcium.
(Adapted from "French Taste" by Laura Calder)