Pasta permutations
You can make dozens of noodle dishes with a few basic recipes and lots of variations

Most Americans view pasta as being fattening. This is because Americans overfeed themselves and guests, serving large portions, pulling away from the table stuffed and uncomfortable. The secret of serving pasta dishes, as I learned from my many trips to Italy, is to serve small portions and serve it as a first course.
Pasta, like rice, can be the base or vehicle for almost any kind of sauce or mixture imaginable. The pasta itself may be interesting – made of rye or artichoke flour instead of wheat; flavored and colored with vegetable puree or herbs; shaped into a myriad of forms. But whatever the pasta, it is the topping that makes the dish.

Pasta absorbs and is enhanced by what it is matched with. In “The Food of Italy” (Vintage, 1977) Waverly Root writes, “In France, a sauce is an adornment, even a disguise, added to a dish more to less as an afterthought. In Italy, it is the dish, its soul, its raison d’être, the element which gives it character and flavor.”

It is important to match the sauce with the shapes of pasta. Marcella Hazan writes in “The Classic Italian Cookbook” (Knopf 1977): Although all macaroni pasta is made from the same, identical dough, the end result is determined by the shape and size. Spaghetti is probably the most successful vehicle for the greatest variety of sauces.

“The thin spaghetti (Spaghettini) is best for seafood sauces and for any sauce whose principle fat is oil. Regular spaghetti is ideal for butter-based white sauces or tomato sauces. The one sauce that somehow doesn’t work well with spaghetti is meat sauce. With meat sauces you ought to choose a substantial, stubby cut of pasta, such as rigatoni. Try it also with shells (conchiglie); their openings is will trap little bits of meat. Fusilli and rotelle are splendid with dense spicy cream and meat sauces which cling deliciously to all their twists and curls.”

Because of pasta’s versatility, it’s easy to come up with a tasty pasta dish at will. With a few basic sauces, you can mix and match vegetables, meats, fish and poultry in endless combinations. Here is my approach to using what I call “foundation recipes” to create an endless variety of pasta dishes.

In another feature, I gave a variation of my versatile “Marinara Sauce”. For those who do not remember, here it is again in another context. Make the sauce ahead of time, and refrigerate for up to a week, or freeze.

When you are ready to prepare a meal you might sauté shrimp in a little olive oil or butter, minced garlic, a few fresh herbs and a splash of dry white wine, add some of the marinara sauce and toss with warm buttered linguine. You could also do a variation with the white sauce, or for a simpler meal, you can just toss the sautéed shrimp into the pasta sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve.

Following are three simple sauces that can be combined with your favorite foods to make delicious pasta toppings.

Marinara Sauce

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cups finely chopped onion

1/2 cup finely chopped carrot

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup dry white wine

2 cups chicken stock (or substitute clam juice it you are using it for seafood)

1/2 cup fresh minced parsley

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

2 tablespoons fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried, crumbled

1 teaspoon minced sage or 1/2 teaspoon dried, crumbled

1 bay leaf

1 (28 ounce) can peeled crushed tomatoes with puree

Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat; add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another 2 minutes; do not burn the garlic. Add the white wine and chicken broth, stir, blend in parsley, basil, oregano, sage, bay leaf, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Simmer on low heat for 45 minutes until sauce is thickened, stirring occasionally. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.


Mussels’ marinara: Add mussels to the sauce; cover and steam till mussels open. Lobster pieces may also be cooked in the sauce.

Poach your favorite fish in the sauce.

Sauté chicken, veal, pork or sausage; add sauce to make a cacciatore.

Add cooked eggplant with small pieces of mozzarella. Place under a broiler a few minutes to melt cheese before serving.

Dissolve anchovies into the sauce and add black olives.

Cook your favorite meatball recipe in the sauce.

Sauté pork chops in a little olive oil and a rosemary sprig, deglaze the pan with red wine, add in the red and asparagus tips; cook until tender and serve over warm pasta.

Cook cauliflower in the sauce.

Lightly sauté squid in a little butter and olive oil, fresh thyme and garlic; add to the red sauce and serve over linguine.

Basic White or Bechamel Sauce

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium shallots, minced

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups hot (scalded) milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Pinch fresh grated nutmeg

1/4 cup heavy cream

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a saucepan over low heat. Add the shallots: cook until translucent but not brown. Blend in the flour and cook for about 2 minutes, it will bubble. Do not let it burn.

Remove from heat; slowly whisk in the hot milk a little at a time, then add salt, pepper and nutmeg. Return to heat; bring to a boil for 1 minute. Lower heat. Slowly add cream, stirring constantly until thick and smooth. If you want a thinner sauce stir in a little milk. Remove from heat. Makes about 2 1/4 cups.


Add gorgonzola cheese to the sauce with prosciutto and peas.

Melt four cheeses into the sauce (mozzarella, gruyere, fontina and provolone) and serve over a colored pasta.

Add a mixture of sautéed vegetables, like red, green and yellow peppers, celery, carrots and onions.

Add cooked minced clams and parsley.

Add fresh sautéed mushrooms.

Stir in chicken, broccoli, garlic and walnuts; good with rigatoni.

Garlic And Oil Sauce

1/4 cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

Fresh ground pepper and salt to taste

Put olive oil into a small saucepan; add garlic and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until garlic starts to brown, barely golden. Do not burn garlic. Stir in parsley, pepper and salt. Continue cooking for 1 minute. Serve over warm, thin spaghetti with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Serves two.


Add anchovies and capers to the sauce.

Combine garlic and oil sauce with some of the marinara sauce; add a dash of crushed red pepper to taste.

Add sautéed escarole, dandelion greens or spinach to the sauce; top with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Add sliced roasted red peppers and roasted pine to the sauce and toss into linguine.

Add artichokes hearts and roasted colorful peppers.

(Published: November 5, 2003)

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