Pasta with Butter and Parmesan

MAKES: About 4 servings

TIME: 30 minutes

One of the recipes that demonstrates the value of water in pasta sauces: You can use as little as 1/2 stick of butter here and still make a credible sauce, as long as you thin it slightly with the pasta-cooking liquid. Of course, within limits, more butter is better. See the (many and good) variations.

You can also get great results using cheese other than Parmesan: Pecorino Romano, crumbled Gorgonzola, mascarpone, and finely grated ricotta salata or fontina are all good. Try them alone, in combination, or with Parmesan.

Salt

4 to 6 tablespoons (1/2 to 3/4 stick) butter

1 pound long pasta, like linguine or spaghetti, or any other pasta

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus cheese for serving

Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Bring the butter to room temperature (you can soften it in a microwave, but don’t melt it). Put it in a warm bowl.

Cook the pasta until tender but not mushy; drain it, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Toss the pasta with the butter, adding a little of the water if necessary to thin the sauce. Toss with the Parmesan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve immediately, passing additional Parmesan at the table.

Variations

Pasta with Butter, Sage, and Parmesan. A classic with browned butter, almost as good with olive oil: Heat 4 or more tablespoons butter with 20 or 30 fresh sage leaves; the butter should brown and the sage sizzle. Cook the pasta and toss the butter, sage, and Parmesan, thinning the sauce with pasta cooking liquid if necessary.

Pasta with Butter, Cream, and Parmesan. Only enough to lightly coat the pasta: Use 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) of butter. In Step 1, when you bring the butter to room temperature, whisk in 1/2 cup heavy cream.

Fettuccine Alfredo. Maybe overkill, but good nevertheless: Reduce the butter to 2 tablespoons and melt it gently. While the pasta cooks, combine 2 eggs, 1/2 cup heavy cream, and 1 cup grated Parmesan in a warmed bowl; beat briefly. Sprinkle with pepper. When the pasta is cooked, toss it with the cheese mixture, adding a little of the cooking water if necessary to keep the mixture moist. Drizzle with the butter, toss well, and serve immediately.

Pasta with Butter, Pepper, and Pecorino. A stronger, southern version, good with an egg tossed with the pasta as well: In Step 2, add a lot of coarsely ground black pepper and use pecorino Romano cheese in place of the Parmesan.

Pasta with Fried Eggs. While the pasta cooks, use some of the butter to cook 2 to 4 eggs, sunny side up; keep them very runny. When the pasta is done, finish as in Step 2. Top with the fried eggs, cut them up, and toss with the pasta.

10 Additions to Pasta with Butter and Parmesan

Use alone or in combination, with the basic recipe or any of the variations:

  1. About 1/2 chopped herb (or herbs); mint is especially nice
  2. About 1 cup cooked peas
  3. Up to 2 cups minced drained cooked spinach (plus a little ricotta if you have it)
  4. Up to 2 cups cooked and drained broccoli florets
  5. 2 or 3 large artichoke hearts, cooked and sliced
  6. A tablespoon or so of grated lemon or orange zest
  7. 1 tablespoon or so capers
  8. Ground dried chiles, like ancho, chipotle, or guajillo, to taste
  9. 2 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped
  10. 10 to 20 mashed roasted garlic cloves