A big bowl of warm pasta often was my go-to on weeknights when I didn’t feel like cooking. I’d boil it, toss it with olive oil, assorted dried herbs and grated Parmesan, and dig in.
Then, I discovered how with just the tiniest bit more effort, I could go from a satisfying bowl of pasta to a dish with deeper flavor and a luxurious texture. The key was adding cheese to piping hot, starchy pasta water and giving it a vigorous stir.
These days, almost every time I boil pasta, I retain the murky water and add a ladle full as a thickener, giving body and a bit of flavor to a variety of sauces, gravies – even soups.
For the emulsion to work, the pasta water should be piping hot and one should be prepared to add the cheese to the water and quickly stir until the creamy sauce emerges.
Some cooks retain the pasta water by lifting the noodles out of the pot with tongs. I prefer to place the colander over large measuring cup and pour the pot over, catching the starchy liquid in the container below. I then add the water back to the pot and reheat, if necessary.
One rookie mistake to avoid: Remember, if you salted or seasoned the water before you boiled your pasta, you are adding that salt or seasoning to your sauce as well, so adjust as needed.
Until now, I had used the technique with hard cheeses such as Parmesan and Romano. Recently, I tried it with goat cheese, and now I have a new favorite.
Here, I added garlic, dried oregano and cayenne to the sauce pan with chunks of goat cheese and hot pasta water. Unlike with hard grated cheeses that require brisk stirring, this preparation calls for a more gentle mixing. As you stir, the goat cheese will melt into the hot water, creating a thin sauce that is then tossed with herbs, spinach and, finally, pasta.
The sauce coats each pasta strand, spreading the tangy goat cheese flavor through the dish. Sub in your favorite vegetables, herbs and toppings as desired.
I added walnuts and crisped bacon to bring a little texture to the creamy bowl.
Pasta With Goat Cheese, Spinach and Walnuts
1 pound whole-grain spaghetti or thin spaghetti (spaghettini)
2 teaspoons avocado oil or extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, grated or minced
8 ounces fresh goat cheese
½ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
10 ounces fresh baby spinach
1 cup (about 1 ounce) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems, chopped, plus more for garnish
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted if desired
3 strips crisp bacon, roughly chopped (optional)
In a large pot of salted boiling water over medium-high heat, cook the pasta about 2 minutes short of package instructions. Drain, reserving 4 cups of the pasta water.
Carefully wipe out any residual water from the pot and return it to medium-high heat. Add the oil and heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
If the goat cheese is in a log, cut it into about 6 pieces. Add the goat cheese, oregano and cayenne and 2 cups pasta water and stir until the cheese is melted and well combined, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the spinach and parsley and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is just wilted, 2 to 3 minutes, adding splashes of additional pasta water as needed.
Remove the pot from the heat and add half of the cooked pasta. Using a large fork or tongs, gently toss until the noodles are well coated.
Add the remaining pasta and repeat until all of the pasta is coated in a thin sauce. Add additional pasta water if the noodles seem too dry.
Transfer the pasta to a big serving bowl. Sprinkle it with the walnuts and bacon, if using. Gently toss once more and serve family-style. Sprinkle parsley on top.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Storage notes: The pasta can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
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