Talk to the best cooks in Italy, and they’ll tell you the secret to great pasta is an ingredient many American cooks throw out — the starchy pasta cooking water. They always reserve a cup or two to stir into the skillet with al dente noodles to help the other ingredients adhere while thickening the sauce.
It’s a technique we had in mind as we developed our recipes for single-pot pasta — both to enrich the sauce and to ease cleanup. The starch released by the pasta gives the sauce body, and the pasta absorbs more of the sauce’s flavors so each bite is seasoned through.
In this recipe from our book “COOKish,” which limits recipes to just six ingredients without sacrificing flavor, sweet-tangy cherry or grape tomatoes are balanced by the savory meatiness of Italian dry salami (pepperoni and sopressata were our favorites).
We make sure to purchase whole, not pre-sliced, salami so it can be cut into small cubes, which unlike slices remain separate as they cook so they brown all over. Small chunks of fontina cheese stirred in at the end melt with the residual heat of the pasta and sauce, making the dish rich and creamy.
It all makes for a homey, satisfying meal in less than half an hour, followed by only a few minutes of cleanup.
Gemelli with Tomatoes, Salami and Fontina
Start to finish: 25 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces pepperoni OR sopressata, cut into ¼-inch cubes
2 pints cherry OR grape tomatoes
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 pound gemelli pasta OR fusilli
4 ounces fontina cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes
In a large pot, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the salami and cook, stirring, until it crisps. Add the tomatoes, onion, fennel seeds and ½ teaspoon pepper. Cover and cook, stirring, until most of the tomatoes have burst; crush any that are still whole. Add 4 cups water, ½ teaspoon salt, then boil. Stir in the pasta. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally and maintaining a vigorous simmer, until the pasta is al dente. Off heat, stir in the fontina, then season with salt and pepper.
Optional garnish: Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley