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Recipe Rescue: Perfect pasta

January 13, 2021
By Patrick Mathieu

Photo credit: Patrick Mathieu

It’s hard to imagine a more versatile, simple and undeniably delicious dish than pasta. No matter the occasion, number of eaters, age of those eaters, time available to prepare, day of the week or budget, pasta always seems to come through in the crunch. Cooking for the family in the time pinch after school before sports? Pasta has a dish for you. Cooking a romantic dinner for two? Pasta has a dish for that too. Cooking a low and slow weekend family comfort dinner? That’s right, pasta is right there for you! After spending most of last year in some form of a pandemic lockdown, it really brought a light to how important a stocked pantry can be, and pasta is a champion of the pantry. Relatively inexpensive and requiring only a handful of fresh ingredients to bring to life, pasta has long been a staple in firehouses across the country as well. Here is a look into my favorite pasta noodles, when to use them and which sauces pair best with them.

Spaghetti, angel hair, capellini and spaghettini: These long, thin noodles are quick and easy staples. Their delicate strands cook up quick and are best paired with light sauces, like a simple tomato and garlic with olive oil, that will coat the strands evenly and won’t get weighed down when wound up with a fork. Fresh, light additions like basil, chopped olives or crumbled crisp pancetta can add layers to the dish without overwhelming the simple pairing.

Fettuccine, linguine, tagliatelle and pappardelle: These wide, flat ribbon-like long noodles are the big guys for ultimate comfort food. These noodles are best paired with hearty or creamy sauces, as the surface area of the pasta’s flat shape enables it to stand up against the heft of a rich sauce. These noodles pull me towards a slow simmered giant meatball, a mushroom ragu, or creamy seafood alfredo.

Penne, rigatoni, ziti, cavatappi and campanelle: These short tubes of pasta are versatile noodles for whatever you’re craving, working well in soups, salads, casseroles and pasta dishes with sauces ranging from creamy to hearty. The larger tubes (for example, rigatoni) have the potential to catch creamy sauces studded with bits of meats or vegetables. If the pasta name includes “rigate”, then the pasta shape will include ridges, which is ideal for something like a pesto sauce that will cling to the pasta.


Macaroni and ditalini: Often thought of as kid’s noodles, these small, narrow tube pastas are ideal for baked pasta dishes where they can be flooded with creamy cheese sauces. The slight bite behind these thin, small tube pastas also makes them perfect in soups and pasta salads, though their small stature makes them less compatible with hearty meat sauces.

Farfalle/bow tie, conchiglie, fusilli, gemelli, orecchiette, rotelle/wagon wheels, rotini, cavatelli and campanelle: These are all short structural shaped pasta in fun shapes that include ruffles, ridges, curls and cones, which gives them a sturdier bite or mouthfeel. This trait makes them ideal for catching or holding rich, heartier sauces with textures brought in from different proteins and vegetables.

Now that we have an idea on which noodle to select there are just a few more little tips to consider to maximize one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Heat your pasta in a skillet with your warm sauce. No matter how great a sauce you can make, if you don’t sauce your pasta correctly, you’re really missing out!  Even a so-so, store-bought jarred marinara sauce can be improved upon by finishing it off the right way.

Cook your pasta in well salted water. Trust me on this one, this is the first step in a really great tasting pasta dish and cannot be overlooked! In general, add about one and a half tablespoons of salt for every pound of pasta (you should use three or four quarts of water to boil a full pound).

Cook your pasta al dente – there was a time when the default for pasta was cooked-to-mush. Pasta should be cooked al dente—”to the tooth”—which means just until it’s cooked through. I personally prefer to undercook the pasta by a few minutes before adding it to the sauce to let it finish.

Do NOT toss cooked pasta with oil—it makes it much more difficult to get sauce to cling to it. Remember the starch in pasta is our friend here.

And finally serve your pasta immediately. Once the pasta is in the sauce there’s a countdown timer that’s automatically started and cannot be paused. Pasta will continue to cook and soften as it sits. The sauce will start to cool down and thicken whether you want it to or not.

Pappardelle with Three Meat Jumbo Meatballs


For the sauce

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 sweet onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 28 oz can diced tomatoes with juices
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp dried basil
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • Pinch crushed chili pepper flakes

For the meatballs 

  • 2 lbs ground sirloin, pork, veal (in equal portion)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ cups grated Romano cheese
  • ¾ cup chopped parsley
  • ¼ cup grated onion
  • 1 cup Italian bread crumbs, seasoned
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Fresh ground pepper

For the pasta

  • 1 lb pappardelle pasta
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • 1 – 2 cups fresh basil, chopped and divided
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano, shaved

For the sauce, place the olive oil and onion in a large sauce pot and sauté lightly. Once the onions become translucent, add the garlic and sauté just until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and their juice and stir in the oregano, basil, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil then lower to a simmer, stirring regularly. Let simmer gently for about 1 hour. 

For the meatballs, combine all of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, mix the ingredients together and shape the mixture into large meatballs Gently place in sauce and continue simmering for at least another 30 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through.

In the meantime, combine the ricotta with 3 – 4 tablespoons of chopped fresh basil. Set aside.

When sauce is ready, prepare the pasta. In a large pot of salted, boiling water add the pasta and cook until al dente based on the package directions. Drain, reserving a cupful of pasta water and add the noodles to the sauce. Toss the noodles to coat but gently as to not break up the meatballs. 

Portion the pasta on plates and top with three meatballs, a few dollops of herbed ricotta, shaved Parm, and more chopped basil. Bon appetit!

My cookbook, The FireHouse Chef (Whitecap Publishing, 2017), has numerous noodle slurping recipes for all tastes if you are ever in need of some inspiration. Stay safe and eat well. 

Patrick Mathieu is an acting captain at Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He was featured on Food Network’s Chopped Canada. You can reach Patrick at or  @StationHouseCCo.

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