Easy-to-make pasta for Zoom breaks

Finished herb pasta from the writer’s kitchen at home. Courtesy of Lukas Johnson.

So, you haven’t thought about food at all during the long hours of Zoom classes in your bedroom. But when the day is done, and you’re sitting there doing nothing, a pang of hunger slowly creeps into your stomach. You need something to eat, and fast—but you don’t want the same old college meal. You want something special, satisfying and also healthy. You want to cook for yourself—but you, like many college students, are not exactly a gourmet cook. Don’t stress! A quick pasta is the perfect solution. Easy to make and a staple comfort food, it brings me back to loud, high energy pasta parties with my teammates the day before a big meet. Here is a simple recipe that I’ve been working on over the neverending months of quarantine that uses common ingredients and turns you into an instant chef. 

Buttered Pasta w/ Fried Herbs:

Ingredients:

  • Salt, lots of it (preferably kosher or sea—more on this later)
  • 1 lb. dried pasta (fettuccine or spaghetti, but whatever you have on hand will work just fine)
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter (if this seems like too much butter, replace half or all with olive oil)
  • ~¼ cup chopped leafy herbs (sage is one of my personal favorites!)
    • Dried herbs can easily be substituted. Just remember that they are much more concentrated, so only use a heaping tablespoon. As a rule of thumb, you only need around ⅓ of the volume of fresh herbs if using dry.
  • Parmesan cheese (opt. garnish)
  • Black pepper (less opt. garnish, freshly ground is preferred)

Boil a large pot of water. Add salt. Add the pasta, stirring frequently. In the meantime, place a skillet over medium heat. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter, then add the chopped herbs with a light sprinkling of salt (add a splash of pasta water if using dried herbs). Consistently stir for about one minute, or until the herbs start to turn a darker green. Switch heat to low and add one more splash of pasta water to prevent burning. 

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, saving some of the pasta water, and quickly rinse with cold water to prevent overcooking. Add the pasta to the skillet with the last tablespoon of butter, adding some more pasta water as needed to get your preferred consistency. Serve hot out of the pan and garnish with grated parmesan and ground black pepper (I usually use a lot).

Now that we have the basics down, here are a few crucial  pointers to elevate this simple meal.

  1. SALT. YOUR. PASTA. WATER. I cannot emphasize this enough! So many people either don’t salt their pasta water at all, or just don’t put enough. Don’t be shy—most of the salt will go down the drain, so you better put enough in to draw out the flavor. Go ahead and taste some: It should taste almost like an Italian beach in the summertime. The first time I had properly salted pasta, my world changed forever. “Pasta can have flavor?!” I thought to myself. Yes, it can! Salt your pasta!
  2. Use kosher or sea salt when you do!  Normal table salt, while perfectly fine if no other option is available,  is not ideal. It contains iodine as an additive, which was once thought to be an important dietary mineral, but nowadays we get more than enough of it. But most importantly, iodine just tastes yucky. By using pure NaCl in the form of sea or kosher salt, we eliminate the muddled flavor of normal salt and emerge with much more satisfied tongues.
  3. What even is al dente? Maybe this is common knowledge, but when I first really got into cooking I didn’t know what it meant, besides just an ideally cooked pot of pasta. Al dente means “to the tooth” in Italian. Essentially, it is the “just right” of pasta—cooked, but not too floppy. The time it takes to boil pasta al dente should be marked on the pasta box, but it is also extremely important to taste the pasta to make sure it has the right consistency.
  4. Practice makes perfect! While cliché, this phrase is something often neglected in cooking. Even with something as simple as pasta, you need to make it many, many times to truly become a master. As you cook more and more, you’ll start catching onto cues—what al dente pasta looks, sounds and even smells like; how much salt is just right; which herbs taste best and which should be saved for a different recipe. All in all, the more you cook, the better you cook. But with this guide and whatever other resources you choose to use, you’ll embark into the world of top tier pasta with a running start!

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