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We know that toasting grains before cooking them adds depth of flavor to our salads, pilafs, and porridges. It also adds color, which makes these creations visually appealing and appetizing.
Toasting does not, however, provide any textural advantage: Because the grains must be cooked after the toasting (in boiling water or a little wine and stock for risotto-style preparations), any crispness gained from the preliminary browning is temporary. So when I read the notes for a toasted orecchiette recipe in the January 2016 Bon Appetit, I paused: As a way to add “textural contrast” and a “new dimension to simple pasta,” Chef Steve Johnson at The John Dory in Tiverton, Rhode Island, fries cooked orecchiette in a hot skillet in olive oil until the surfaces are golden and the edges are crispy.
I’ve tried the technique several times now, most recently with this summer squash and corn pasta from Chez Panisse Vegetables, which confirmed Johnson’s assessment and made me wonder: Why don’t we do this more often? Like croutons atop a puréed soup or candied nuts in a mixed green salad or potato chips in a turkey sandwich, the toasty bits of orecchiette punctuating the cubes of sautéed zucchini and corn transform an otherwise texturally boring dish.
Sure, this crunch could be achieved in other ways—by toasting nuts, crisping breadcrumbs, or blanketing it all with cheese and broiling it—but how nice not to add another ingredient to the list! How nice to bring out the best of an existing one.
The key to success here, I’ve found, is to make sure the oil is hot before adding the pasta and to resist stirring it in the hot pan for two minutes. And with the vegetables, not cooking them longer than three minutes will ensure they don’t turn to mush by the end. It’s a less is more kind of pasta dressed simply with reserved pasta cooking liquid and crème fraiche, a lightly creamy sauce that unifies the various elements in an anything-but-boring summer pasta.
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt plus more to taste
- 12 ounces orecchiette
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 4 to 5 small zucchini, small diced to yield 4 cups
- 2 ears of corn, shucked, kernels removed
- 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
- 1/4 cup crème fraiche
- 1/2 cup basil, finely sliced
- Freshly cracked pepper to taste
- Lemon for serving, optional
What's your secret to a truly delicious bowl of pasta? Share them in the comments.