How to cook pasta plus Stephanie Alexander's 10 simple sauces

Stephanie Alexander's speedy barely cooked tomato sauce.
Stephanie Alexander's speedy barely cooked tomato sauce. Photo: Eddie Jim

Inspired by the runaway success of her 1996 kitchen bible The Cook's Companion and her work with teaching school children to grow, choose and cook food, Stephanie Alexander returned to the keyboard to write The Cook's Apprentice.

"While The Cook's Companion aims to teach adults about the produce in this country, The Cook's Apprentice​ has a particular emphasis on techniques – the 'hows' and 'whys' of cooking," she writes in the book's introduction.

She imagined herself talking to young cooks as she wrote each recipe, explaining details, defining ingredients and offering reminders and advice that will demystify the cooking process. But even more experienced kitchen hands will come away from reading The Cook's Apprentice​ with some tips and tricks – including how to handle chillies, pronounce pancetta, cook with alcohol and make a decent salad dressing. 
Roslyn Grundy

These lovely sauces are all perfect to serve with home-made pasta or shop-bought pasta.

Do buy a chunk of good parmesan cheese, not a packet of already grated cheese. The difference in flavour is huge. Grate what you need for the dish (maybe 50g for four people) and then rewrap the chunk in a cloth or a waxed food wrapper and refrigerate it for next time.

Stephanie Alexander and her zucchini and lemon pasta.
Stephanie Alexander and her zucchini and lemon pasta. Photo: Eddie Jim

If you are making pasta for lunch or dinner, remember the rule: have everything prepared before you start. Table set? Check. Cheese grated? Check. Herbs chopped? Check. Colander in the sink? Check. Salad in the salad bowl? Check. Pasta bowls warming in a low oven? Check. Great! You are ready to start.
Stephanie Alexander

Barely cooked tomato sauce

INGREDIENTS 

600g really ripe tomatoes (any size, even cherry tomatoes)

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1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

The Cook's Apprentice by Stephanie Alexander.
The Cook's Apprentice by Stephanie Alexander. Photo: Lantern Books

1 handful basil leaves, torn

salt and freshly ground black pepper

50g parmesan cheese, grated

METHOD

1. If your tomatoes are large, halve them and squeeze out the seeds, then dice. Or use halved cherry tomatoes. In a pan over medium heat cook the onion and garlic in the oil for a few minutes. Add the tomato and basil, then season and toss together. Raise the heat and cook until the tomato has collapsed and the juices look syrupy. Taste for salt and pepper. Spoon over hot pasta in warmed bowls and offer parmesan.

Serves 4

Butter and rocket

INGREDIENTS

100g butter

2 big handfuls rocket leaves, long stalks trimmed

salt and freshly ground black pepper

50g parmesan cheese, grated

METHOD

1. In a frying pan over medium heat melt the butter. Once it has just started to foam drop in the rocket leaves and turn them in the hot butter for no more than one minute. They should just wilt. Tip in the cooked and drained pasta, remove the pan from the heat and add pepper and a little salt. Gently toss, then serve in warmed bowls and offer parmesan.

Serves 4

Onion and anchovy

INGREDIENTS

2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

8 anchovy fillets, chopped

2 onions, finely sliced

2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

salt and freshly ground black pepper

50g parmesan cheese, grated

METHOD

1. In a frying pan over medium heat melt the butter and add the oil. Drop in the anchovy fillets and stir until they start to melt. Add the onion and stir to coat with the buttery juices, then cover and lower the heat. Cook for about 10 minutes.

2. Uncover, then raise the heat for the final stir, add the parsley and season. Toss through hot pasta, then serve in warmed bowls and offer parmesan.

Serves 4

Puttanesca

INGREDIENTS

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 fresh long red chilli, seeded

8 anchovy fillets, chopped

20 black olives, stoned

1 tbsp capers

1 × 400g can chopped tomatoes

2 tbsp chopped oregano

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

50g parmesan cheese, grated

METHOD

1. In a frying pan over medium heat, stir the oil, garlic and chilli for one minute. Add the anchovies, olives, capers, tomato and oregano, then stir, and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and spoon over hot pasta in warmed bowls. Garnish with parsley and offer parmesan.

Serves 4

GOOD FOOD - Stephanie Alexander and her two pasta dishes. 25 September 2018. The Age Epicure. Photo: Eddie Jim.

Zucchini and lemon pasta with optional toasted breadcrumbs. Photo: Eddie Jim

Zucchini and lemon

INGREDIENTS

3 lemons

6 small zucchini, coarsely grated

60g butter

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped 

¼ cup cream

40g parmesan cheese, grated

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

METHOD

1. Add the grated zest of two of the lemons to the pasta cooking water. Squeeze the grated zucchini in a clean, dry tea towel to remove excess moisture. In a frying pan over medium heat melt the butter with the oil and cook the garlic for a minute, then stir in the zucchini. Cook for a few minutes. Zest and juice the remaining lemon and add to the pan with the cream, parmesan and a generous amount of pepper. Taste for salt. Toss through hot pasta, serve in warmed bowls and garnish with parsley. (Toasted breadcrumbs are a lovely garnish but will push this preparation beyond 15 minutes!)

Serves 4

Mushrooms and cream

INGREDIENTS

60g butter

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

300g mushrooms (buttons, flats, pine mushrooms or a mixture), sliced

2 tbsp water

¼ cup cream

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

50g parmesan cheese, grated

METHOD

1. In a frying pan over medium heat melt the butter with the oil. Cook the onion and garlic for two minutes. Add the mushrooms and water, then cover the pan and cook for eight minutes until the mushrooms have shrunk in the pan. Uncover and raise the heat to high to boil away some of the juices. Add the cream and taste for salt and pepper. Add the parsley and toss through hot pasta. Served in warmed bowls and offer parmesan.

Serves 4

Silverbeet and pinenuts

INGREDIENTS

2 tbsp currants or sultanas

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 fresh long red chilli, seeded and finely chopped

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

12 silverbeet leaves, finely sliced

2 tbsp toasted pinenuts

50g parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated

extra grated parmesan cheese, to serve

METHOD

1. Soak the currants or sultanas in hot water for 10 minutes. In a frying pan over medium heat cook the onion, garlic and chilli in the oil for one to two minutes.

2. Add the silverbeet and drained currants.

3. Turn to mix the silverbeet in the juices. Cook for five minutes, then stir in the pinenuts and cheese. Toss through hot pasta and serve in warmed bowls. Offer parmesan.

Serves 4

Pasta carbonara

INGREDIENTS

4 large eggs

60g parmesan cheese, grated

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

150g pancetta, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

extra chopped flat-leaf parsley, to serve

extra grated parmesan cheese, to serve

METHOD

1. Lightly beat the eggs in a small bowl and stir in the parmesan and parsley. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook for two to three minutes until crisp. Toss the pancetta through the hot pasta. Quickly stir the egg, cheese and parsley mixture into the pasta, serve in warmed bowls and finish with pepper, more parsley and extra parmesan.

Serves 4

Zucchini and peas

INGREDIENTS

2 tbsp butter

12 sage leaves

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

8 tiny zucchini, cut in half lengthwise

8 zucchini flowers

zest and juice of 1 lemon

120g ricotta, crumbled

100g frozen peas

50g parmesan cheese, grated

METHOD

1. In a frying pan over medium heat melt the butter and cook the sage leaves until crisp (about three minutes). Remove the sage leaves to a plate, then add the oil, garlic, zucchini and zucchini flowers. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini have become a little golden and the flowers are golden-brown. Add the zest, juice and ricotta. Lower the heat, cover and cook for two to three minutes. Meanwhile, add the peas to the pasta for the last few minutes of the cooking time, then drain. Spoon the sauce over hot pasta in warmed bowls, top each portion with three crisp sage leaves and offer parmesan.

Serves 4

Bolognese sauce 

This is one version – there must be thousands! From pantry to table, this will take about one hour and 45 minutes. 

INGREDIENTS

1 onion, finely chopped

1 stick celery, finely sliced

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

400g minced beef or veal

100g pancetta or smoked streaky bacon, chopped

2 tsp plain flour

½ cup dry white wine

salt and freshly ground black pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

2 cups veal stock, homemade chicken stock or tomato juice

1 × 400g can chopped tomatoes

2 tbsp tomato paste

¼ cup cream

1 large sprig thyme

1 bay leaf

METHOD

1. Cook the onion, celery and garlic in the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes.

2. Add the minced meat and pancetta or bacon and cook until the meat breaks up into small lumps. You will need to encourage this by squashing the lumps of meat with a wooden spoon (I use a potato masher!).

3. Sprinkle in the flour, then stir well. Add the wine and some salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix well, then increase the heat and bring to a boil to reduce the liquid. You need to cook the sauce until it looks moist but is not sloppy.

4. Now add the stock or tomato juice, tomatoes, tomato paste, cream and herbs. Mix well. Reduce the heat again and simmer for one hour, stirring from time to time. Taste for seasoning.

Variation: You could leave out the wine and substitute water. Or you could use red wine instead of white wine.

Serves 4–6

Making fresh pasta with pasta machine.
Shutterstock image downloaded under the Good Food team account (contact syndication for reuse permissions).

Fresh pasta cooks faster than dried pasta. Photo: Shutterstock

How to cook pasta 

■ Different pastas suit different sauces. The general rule of thumb is that thick, chunky sauces are best with angular, tubular or twisty pasta. And that creamy sauces or simple oil-and-herb dressings are best with strands.

■ Select a pot that can hold at least eight litres of water. The rule is one litre per person and one litre for the pot and enough room for fast boiling. Add one tablespoon of salt per four litres of water.

■ Fresh pasta will take two to three minutes. Dried pasta will take five to 12 minutes, depending on the shape and thickness. Follow the instructions on your packet.

■ A minute or so before the end of the cooking time, test the pasta to see if it is "al dente", which means "to the tooth" in Italian. When you taste it, the pasta should not be too soft nor too hard and there should be a little resistance.

■ Drain the pasta in the sink. NEVER rinse it – the precious sauce-catching starch left on the pasta disappears down the sink if you do. It is always a good idea to spoon out a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water moments before you drain the pasta in case you need to thin a sauce or help a thick sauce such as pesto blend evenly with the hot pasta.

This is an edited extract from The Cook's Apprentice by Stephanie Alexander, published by Lantern, RRP $45.