Published March 1, 2010.
Tomato sauce is almost never the right choice for capitalizing on this pasta’s robust flavor. Neither is cream sauce or pesto. So what is?
Whole-wheat pasta has a distinctive, rustic, and nutty flavor that sets it apart from traditional white pasta. As a result, it lacks the blank-slate quality and can be difficult to pair with sauce.
We wanted a handful of sauces that would provide just the right complement to the hearty flavor and firm texture of whole-wheat pasta.
Acidic tomato sauces, pestos, and rich cream-based sauces are not ideal for whole-wheat pastas, so we opted for aglio e olio, a bold sauce of garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil. With that as our inspiration, we began sautéing lots of chunky vegetables that would soak up flavor and provide a nice counterpoint to whole-wheat pasta’s hearty texture.
We chose asparagus, fennel, and zucchini because they didn’t need to be parcooked and neither competed with nor overpowered the earthy spaghetti. We cooked each vegetable in extra-virgin olive oil over medium-high heat until it turned crisp-tender and sweet, then cleared the center of the pan to make room for more oil, a generous hit of minced garlic, and red pepper flakes for a sauce that was hot without being incendiary. The aromatics bloomed quickly in the sizzling oil, which we then stirred into the vegetables for even distribution. Our final step was a standard test kitchen pasta sauce procedure: We added some of the spaghetti cooking water to the cooked vegetable mixture. The starch from the pasta thickened the liquid exuded by the vegetables and helped the sauce cling to the pasta when the two were combined.
In each variation of this recipe, we worked in glutamate-rich ingredients that contribute savory umami flavor and enhance the nuttiness of the spaghetti. Salty pancetta was a natural partner for the asparagus, anise-accented Italian sausage paired perfectly with the fennel, and the sweet, concentrated flavor of sun-dried tomatoes complemented the mild zucchini. A sprinkle of freshly grated Pecorino Romano (also packed with glutamates) over each serving provided a rich, salty tang that tasters preferred over Parmesan.list of recipes