Last fall, I picked up Stanley Tucci’s best-selling memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food. It includes many of the dishes that were featured on his CNN show, Searching For Italy, and not surprisingly, many of those recipes were for pasta dishes.
As I read along, I noticed a pattern: Tucci really wants us to make use of the starchy cooking water that’s left over when pasta comes out of the pot. So much that starchy water is cited 12 times throughout Taste, from Spaghetti With Lentils to Pasta Alla Norma to Fish Stew.
Now, I’ve often stirred a tablespoon of starchy water into thickened pasta sauce to make it a little smoother. But I have a method that works even better with pasta: chicken broth.
There are three primary ways to incorporate chicken broth into pasta dishes, and one of them has been around since culinary techniques have been taught.
Making a velouté
If the history books have it correctly, French chef Marie-Antoine Carême was the first person to use chicken stock as a base for sauce around the early 1800s. Carême is credited with inventing velouté, which is one of the five “mother sauces” that students learn about in culinary school.
It’s a fairly simple process: make a roux from butter and flour, slowly stir in chicken stock, and voila! You have a pale yellow creamy sauce that can serve as a base for other flavorings. The basic proportions are 3:3:2—three tablespoons of flour, three tablespoons of butter, and two cups of chicken broth.
You can add lemon juice to a velouté for a delicious citrusy sauce (be careful to stir well to incorporate it, and watch out for seeds). You can add some of your favorite herbs: I think it’s wonderful with tarragon, which pairs well with a simple chicken dish, some salmon, or grilled tofu.
Stir in dairy, if you like, such as grated parmesan or goat cheese, always remembering to blend well. Velouté can be made in small quantities, or in a bigger amount if you are serving a group.
Pep up vegetables
Not everyone wants to take the time to make an actual velouté sauce, however, and those cooks can try using chicken broth as a flavor enhancer in other ways.
I will often steam vegetables like Chinese broccoli, cauliflower, fennel, and chopped-up greens to add to other dishes, such as pasta or a rice bowl. Ordinarily, I toss them in a little olive oil and salt so that the flavor doesn’t fight with the main dish, but to make them shine, toss your veggies in chicken broth, about one or two tablespoons per cup of vegetables, before you cook them.
The broth adds flavor and saltiness without being overwhelming. If you sense that the chicken flavor is too hearty, you can dilute it with water, and again, it’s a perfect blend with lemon or lime juice, depending on the type of main dish that you’re serving.
Pasta in broth
One of my favorite Italian soups is one of the simplest: pasta en brodo, or pasta in broth. It’s exactly what it sounds like: pasta served in either chicken, beef, or vegetable broth.
The dish is said to have originated in the Emilia-Romagna area of northeast Italy, but you can find it in many restaurants that specialize in northern Italian food. It’s a true comfort dish that marries the simplicity of chicken broth with a favorite pasta shape.
When you make the dish, decide how flavorful you want the broth to be. Some people are happy with pasta cooked in broth exactly as it comes out of the box or jar (or freezer, if you make your own).
Other diners find that too bland, and doctor it up with garlic or butter. For me, that makes the broth more like soup, and it cancels out the delicate flavor of the broth itself. If you want more than just broth, I recommend you experiment by adding juice, herbs, or spices.
The pasta style is up to you. One classic version features tortellini, with diced vegetables or meat often added for more flavor. This recipe from Jamie Oliver gives you quite a hearty dish. You can use rice noodles to create a quick pho-style soup, or heartier udon if you like their chewy texture.
But, this is an opportunity to use smaller types such as orzo, orecchiette (the ones shaped like little ears), and acini di pepe, whose name means “peppercorn” and which is even smaller.
To me, pasta in chicken broth is the perfect dish to make in cold weather when you want something filling, and you want the satisfaction of having cooked, but you don’t want to fuss.
Tips for using chicken broth
Test the saltiness of the broth before you do anything with it. Some commercial versions can be quite salty (read the label for the salt content). If you are using homemade broth, err on the less salty side. You can always add more salt during cooking.
Heat up the chicken broth to a boil, skim off any residual fat, add any flavorings, then drop in the pasta. Turn it down immediately to a simmer. Test the pasta during the cooking process for doneness. Because chicken broth is thicker than water, your pasta may need an extra minute or two to cook.
Freeze broth in ice cube trays, then thaw one or two for use with veggies or to make a small amount of velouté. My trick is to freeze the cubes, then pop them into a Ziploc as soon as they are solid.