6 Tips for Better Pasta That Everyone Should Know, Plus Fall's Best Gnocchi

Ensure that all of your pasta dinners are successful with these go-to tips from The Four Seasons of Pasta.
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The potential for that box of pasta sitting on your pantry shelf is almost limitless, as The Four Seasons of Pasta is here to prove. Written by mother-daughter team Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Sara Jenkins, this book stretches the classic standby ingredient into new and delightfully flavorful seasonal meals. Think Pasta alla Carbonara for spring, Spaghetti with SunBurst Tomatoes for summer, a hearty Ragu Bolognese for winter, or the Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Sage for autumn ( recipe below for you to try at home).

And though you've likely been making pasta since you first learned to boil water, heed Nancy and Sara's advice for a truly exceptional pasta dish:

1. Make sure your pasta water is abundant — 5 or 6 quarts for a standard 500-gram (about 1 pound) box of pasta.

2. Be sure you bring it to a rolling boil.

3. Salt the water generously.

4. Have the sauce ready when the pasta is done so you can dress it immediately.

5. Don't add oil to the pasta cooking water.

6. Don't ever, ever run cold water over the pasta as you drain it; just turn the hot pasta out into a warmed bowl and serve immediately.

Much of The Four Seasons of Pasta is dedicated to exploring the Italian traditions of pasta, something with which both chefs are abundantly familiar, each having lived in Italy for years. What sets Italian food apart from the Italian-American food we know? “We've learned in the years we've been living here [that] there is no such thing as Italian food. It's Tuscan or it's Sicilian or it's Piemontese, et cetera,” they told FN Dish. “Another point: In Italy, food is presented in much smaller portions than in the U.S., and in a sequence: You might have a tiny antipasto, then you'll have your pasta, and then a small portion of protein, perhaps followed by a salad. But always in small quantities.”

Nancy and Sara reveal the key to layering in flavor like an Italian, and it’s surprisingly simple: “So much of Italian food — sauces, stews, soups, et al. — begins with a battuto of chopped vegetables, usually onion, a little garlic, celery (the dark green stalks on the outside), parsley, carrot, all chopped together with some prosciutto or guanciale and sauteed in olive oil or pure pork lard. That's the flavor base at the heart of so many Italian dishes.” They go on to say, “The surprising thing about Italian food is the simplicity of it. The flavor comes from the materia prima, the primary ingredients, whether wheat, carrots or chickens — and they all derive their flavor from the terroir, to borrow a French word, the soil and the climate in which they thrive.”

You can order your copy of The Four Seasons of Pasta here.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Sage

An alluring switch on the usual recipe for potato gnocchi, this marries the jammy sweetness of the potatoes (sometimes called yams) with the spicy fragrance of fresh sage. Using durum flour, available from King Arthur Flour, lends strength to the mixture, and dropping the gnocchi into an ice-water bath after poaching also helps them retain their shape. For best results, these should be prepared just before you’re ready to serve them. The potatoes must be worked with the flour while they’re still quite hot.

Serves 6
3 or 4 large sweet potatoes (3 1/2 pounds)
1 to 1 1/2 cups durum flour, plus a little more for the board
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick or 1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 to 10 whole sage leaves
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Set the oven on 425 degrees F.

Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork. Place in the hot oven and bake until they are falling-apart tender, about 50 minutes. While the potatoes are still very hot, remove the peels and discard them. Mash the hot potatoes or put them through a food mill into a bowl. You should have about 4 cups pureed sweet potato.

Stir in the flour and mix well, beating with a wooden spoon. Break off a small walnut-size piece of dough and roll it into a ball. It should hold together well, with a firm but malleable texture. If the dough seems too loose, add a little more flour, but be careful not to add too much, since it will make the gnocchi heavy.

Dust a clean work surface or a pasta board with a bit more flour and spread the potato mixture out. Knead it, adding a little more flour, if necessary, just until the dough comes together, then cover the mound of dough with a clean kitchen towel and leave it to rest for about 10 minutes.

Bring about 4 quarts salted water to a rolling boil. On a counter next to the stove, fill a large bowl with ice cubes and water to be ready to receive the gnocchi once they are cooked.

While the water is heating, dust the work surface once more with a little flour. Break off a fistful of dough, leaving the rest under the towel. Using the palms of your hand, roll the dough into a rope, about 1 inch in diameter. Cut the rope into gnocchi, each piece about 1/ 3 inch long.

Holding your hand flat with the fingers together, briskly roll each gnocco on the board, back and forth under your fingers, to form a little dowel-shape piece, then roll through a little flour to dust lightly. Transfer to a lightly floured baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough, until all of the gnocchi are rolled.

Heat 4 tablespoons of the butter and 1/4 cup of the oil in a small skillet, and as the butter begins to foam, add the sage leaves. Fry until the butter is nut-brown and the sage leaves are crisp. Set aside but keep warm.

Adjust the heat under the water so that the water boils gently but not fiercely. Gently drop the gnocchi, a few at a time, into the bubbling water. They will float to the surface when they are done. As they finish cooking, use a slotted spoon to skim them off and transfer to the ice-water bath, just dipping and then removing them before transferring them to a deep plate.

Have ready a warm serving bowl.

When all the gnocchi are poached, combine the remaining 4 tablespoons butter and 1/4 cup oil in a large skillet and add the gnocchi, in batches. Toast them briefly, just long enough to heat them up once more. Add the first batch to the warm bowl.

Spoon a little of the sage and brown butter over the top, then a little of the grated Parmigiano, and then continue, layer by layer, until all the gnocchi are cooked. Spoon the last sage and brown butter mixture over the top, and dust with the remaining cheese. Add plenty of cracked pepper and serve immediately.

Reprinted by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Sara Jenkins, 2015.

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