It's not hard to make leftovers into an ultra-tasty pasta dish. If you have anything from a couple odds and ends to a large, frightening buffet lurking in your crisper—it doesn't matter. Last night I made leftovers pasta (above) with so many different things it looked like my refrigerator threw up. But it tasted fantastic.
I've figured out four simple techniques that help make it taste great.
1. Have a Fat Strategy
If you've got a bit of hamburger or bacon that's headed for the dish, cook it first and use the fat for the rest of the cooking. Same goes for an old sausage or salami end. It doesn't matter what kind of fat you use, just think about how to get it in the dish at the beginning. Last night I had an old jar of peppers that were packed in olive oil. The peppers were long gone. I kept the jar with the oil; it's perfect for this kind of dish. Also, don't skimp on the fat. Its going to be the vessel for the flavor and the source of the mouth-filling texture.
2. Think About Salt in Things, Not On Things
I tend to cook on the saltier side but for this dish I didn't add any salt directly to it. Instead I added things that had some salt in them. This time they were capers, salt-cured limes and harissa. As for the pasta water, it should be salty like the sea. To learn how much to salt your water eat a noodle straight out of the water when it's almost done cooking. It should taste seasoned.
3. Re-use the Pasta Water
It took me forever to figure out that this was the key to making great pasta dishes (that weren't topped with tomato sauce). Don't throw out the water, please! Use it in the sauce. It makes a huge difference.
4. Don't Finish Cooking Pasta in the Water
Finish it in the sauce. If the pasta is not yet al dente it's still hungry for liquid. Switch it from the pot of water to your sauce and it'll soak up sauce, not water—and you'll have a more flavorful dish.
For leftover pasta, the order I work goes like this:
- Set the water to boil.
- Put a big skillet on the burner and start adding things: meats/fat first, then aromatics like garlic, onion, pastes like harissa. Maybe a little bit of leftover sauce—whatever sauce I have. More leftovers next, especially ones that need longer cooking. Spices, too, like a stem of some old herb or a chile pepper. Cook on low, don't worry about stirring too much.
- When the water boils add a small handful of salt and the pasta. When the pasta is not quite done, strain it and pour a half inch of the water in the skillet simmering the sauce. Add the pasta to the skillet. Save the remaining water. Cook on high heat till the pasta is done. Add more pasta water if it starts getting dry. You want the pasta to be wet, the water will make the sauce.
- At the very end I may add things that barely need cooking. Last night it was some frozen peas, corn and a mound of mangy arugula, all added just at the end, stirred and poured out into a bowl.
- I usually finish with freshly ground black pepper, Marash pepper and a squeeze of lemon.
Practice this a half dozen times and I guarantee your homemade leftovers pasta will taste better than almost any pasta dish you can eat in a restaurant. It certainly helps to use a great noodles like Rustichella or Martelli. If you're going to spend some money, do it there.