Cook the Pasta and Sauce Together
It's that simple. In camp, when appetites are huge but stoves are small, you can dish up perfectly acceptable pasta in 30 minutes or less, without dirtying more than one skillet or pot. The upshot? A culinary hat trick: simple preparation, satisfying eating, and easy clean-up. Does this sound too good to be true? It's not. I spent a few days in my test kitchen experimenting with a variety of recipes, and I'm happy to report that the results were uniformly delicious.
This shouldn't have come as any surprise. Cooking is little more than applied chemistry, after all. Dried pasta has to be rehydrated, and that's achieved by immersing it in boiling liquid. Well, sauces are more or less liquid, aren't they? So why not boil pasta in its own sauce, right in the same pot? That way, the pasta cooks as the sauce thickens, while the thickening sauce infuses the pasta with its flavor. It's a win-win scenario, even if it's not likely to find its way into the kitchens of many five-star restaurants. Camp cooks have more modest goals than cordon bleu chefs. If our meals are simple, good, and filling, we've succeeded. And make no mistake about it, one-pot pasta succeeds. The secret to pulling it off is getting the amount of liquid right. This isn't mission impossible. Just look in your local HyperMart. You'll find plenty of examples of one-pot pasta meals on the shelves. Pasta-and-sauce mixes and Hamburger Helper are only two examples. In fact, such premixed meals are classic camp fare, and many of them are pretty good. But you can do even better with meals you put together yourself. It's easier than you think. Here's…
The Master Key…
That unlocks the secrets of one-pot pasta. It's the starting point for your own voyage of culinary discovery. The list of ingredients is short and to the point:
- Sauce (liquid or dried)
- Toppings and embellishments
A word about cookware is in order before we get started. It couldn't be simpler. I find that a 10- to 12-inch-wide skillet works best, though a squat pot with a wide bottom will also do the job.
Begin by making sure your pasta will be completely submerged in the sauce. Long strands should be broken in half or quartered. Thin pasta like angel hair and spaghettini will cook very rapidly. Heartier pastas—rigatoni, say, or shells—will take longer. The upside? They won't need quite as much oversight as the thinner stuff.
Now assemble all your ingredients. And don't plan on doing anything else while your pasta is cooking. It won't take very long, but it will require your full attention. If you're using a powdered sauce mix, this is the time to reconstitute it. Add water to the dried mix right in the skillet. Add olive oil, too, if that's what the package or recipe calls for. Of course, if the sauce you're using is already liquid, just pour it in. Now start heating the pot, adding your pasta to the liquid sauce and stirring to ensure that it's thoroughly mixed in. Next, top up the sauce with enough water to cover the pasta. Keep on high heat until the liquid boils, then lower the flame (or move the skillet to a cooler spot on the fire), cover (leave a gap to allow steam to escape), and simmer. Check the pasta often as it cooks. It will absorb liquid from the sauce, softening as it does. So add more water as needed, but don't overdo it. A cup (or less) at a time is about right. You want your pasta saucy, not soupy. Stir often, and take the skillet off the heat when the pasta reaches the al dente stage, neither hard nor wilted. That's it! It's time to eat.
OK. So much for the Big Picture. Let's look next at a couple of specific recipes. A word of warning: These work for me, but be sure to try them at home first, before you rely on them in the backcountry. Surprises are a lot easier to cope with when you have a full refrigerator at your elbow than when you're in a riverbank camp in a rain storm, surrounded by hungry companions and equally ravenous mosquitoes. I'd suggest beginning with…
Pasta in Tomato Sauce You'll need a packet (or can) of commercial tomato sauce. I used a 13.5-ounce, shelf-stable, aseptic pouch of Bertolli Premium Sun Ripened Tomato and Olive Pasta Sauce, along with half a pound of rigatoni. I also used a three-quart pot, though in later trials I substituted a skillet with equally good results. (As I've already noted, I prefer the skillet in camp.) Preparation follows the steps outlined in the Master Key. Heat the sauce over a medium-high flame or a hot fire, and mix the pasta into the sauce. Don't put the pouch in the trash bag as soon as you empty it, though. First pour about a cup of water into it and slosh the water around to harvest any remaining sauce. Then pour the extra water into the pot. Now stir pasta and sauce together thoroughly, coating each piece.