A Less-Is-More Pasta (with a Few Tricks Up Its Sleeves)

July 21, 2016

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.

The very green, very summery lineup in its original state, left, and quick-cooking—just three minutes—in the frying pan. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

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.

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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.

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

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Top Comment:
“When it's finished there's a layer of crispy fried rice that you can either mix in for textural contrast or scrape the soft cooked rice of and eat the remaining fried portion as a cracker-like wafer. YUM.”
— erin

What's your secret to a truly delicious bowl of pasta? Share them in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Fresh Tomatoes
    Fresh Tomatoes
  • erin
  • rebeccab
  • judy
  • Alexandra Stafford
    Alexandra Stafford
I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


Fresh T. July 25, 2016
I love it Alexandra! Always good suggestions and I love summer veggies and summer veggie pastas. I never use creme fraiche, but I'll make this, this week. Rock on Ali!
Alexandra S. July 25, 2016
Thank you, Dana! You are too sweet :) And yes, creme fraiche is so good in pasta — it makes a very light-tasting sauce.
erin July 22, 2016
Have you tried making rice the persian way for textural contrast? Basmati rice is half cooked with ample salt, then rinsed and returned to the pot overtop a layer of olive oil. The rice then finishes cooking covered. When it's finished there's a layer of crispy fried rice that you can either mix in for textural contrast or scrape the soft cooked rice of and eat the remaining fried portion as a cracker-like wafer. YUM.
erin July 22, 2016
Alexandra S. July 22, 2016
I have not! And I must! Thanks for sending the link. Sounds so good. Very excited to try this asap. Thank you!!
rebeccab July 21, 2016
I love the idea of modifying the pasta a little bit for interest & flavor. Will try to use this technique in other pasta dishes. Am thinking about adding lobster to this one for a summer meal.
Thank you!
Alexandra S. July 21, 2016
Lobster sounds lovely! The flavors would be so nice with the corn and zucchini. Tarragon would be a nice addition if you add lobster. Yum!
judy July 21, 2016
For me, I would use a little butter and olive oil, and a little grated parmesan garlic and a LOT of cracked pepper--this seems terribly bland....although the basil will help
Alexandra S. July 21, 2016
I love lots of freshly cracked pepper, too! The original recipe actually does call for butter — I used creme fraiche in its place to make a lightly creamy sauce, but butter would be delicious, too. Amazingly, I didn't miss not having any cheese, but you can't go wrong. Hope you like it! I promise you it's not bland at all as it is, but your variations sound wonderful.