Four recipes for classic quick pasta sauces

Basil pesto

Don’t skimp on the nuts and cheese here.

To use as a pasta sauce, spoon the pesto into a large bowl and add just-cooked, drained pasta.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, (Canongate)

Makes about 400g

175ml extra virgin olive oil

About 2 big bunches fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped

1-2 garlic cloves, finely grated or pounded with a pinch of salt

65g pine nuts, lightly toasted and pounded

100g parmesan, finely grated, plus more for serving


1 The key to blending basil in a machine is to avoid overdoing it, because the heat the motor generates, along with the oxidation that can occur from overchopping it, will cause the basil to turn brown.

So, give it a headstart and chop it roughly first.

Also, pour half the olive oil into the bottom of the blender or processor bowl first, to encourage the basil to break down into a liquid as quickly as possible.

Then pulse, stopping to push down the leaves with a rubber spatula about twice a minute, until the basil oil becomes a fragrant, emerald-green whirlpool.

2 To prevent overblending the basil, finish the pesto in a bowl.

Pour the basil oil out into a medium bowl, and add some of the garlic, pine nuts and parmesan.

Stir to combine, then taste. Does it need more garlic? More salt? More cheese? Is it too thick?

If so, add a little more oil, or plan to add some pasta water.

Tinker and taste again, keeping in mind that, as the pesto sits for a little while, the flavours will come together, the garlic will become more pronounced, and the salt will dissolve.

3 Let it sit for a few minutes, then taste and adjust again. Add enough olive oil to cover the sauce to stop oxidation.

4 Refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.

Cacio e pepe

A classic Roman dish.

Traditionally pecorino is used, but we prefer high-quality, aged parmesan for depth.

Trullo by Tim Siadatan (Square Peg)

Serves 4

400g any pasta (traditionally pici)

160g unsalted butter

Salt and 4 tbsp black pepper

1 tsp lemon juice

100g parmesan, finely grated

1 In a large saucepan, bring some salty water up to the boil. Cook the pasta. When cooked, remove from the water, saving some of the cooking water.

2 Add the butter, black pepper, lemon juice and a splash of the pasta cooking water to a saucepan on a medium heat and then turn down to a low heat until they emulsify.

3 Add the pasta to the sauce. Add the parmesan – but do not stir.

Leave the parmesan to sit and melt from the residual heat of the pan –this prevents it from becoming chewy little cheesy balls. Once the parmesan has melted, stir the pasta and sauce.

Season with salt and serve immediately.

Pasta with butter, sage and parmesan

Like many simple sauces, this one takes less time to prepare than the pasta itself.

Fresh, fragrant sage is my choice of herb here, but try parsley, thyme, chervil or other green herbs in its place.

Or cook minced shallot or onion in the butter until translucent.

You could even add toasted breadcrumbs or chopped nuts to the butter, just until they’re lightly browned.

In any case, finish the sauce with a sprinkling of parmesan, which not only adds its distinctive sharpness, but also thickens the mixture even further.

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Serves 4

450g cut pasta, such as ziti

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tbsp butter

30 fresh sage leaves

1 cup or more freshly grated parmesan

1 Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt well, and cook the pasta until it is tender but not quite done.

2 Meanwhile, put the butter in a frying pan or saucepan large enough to hold the cooked pasta; turn the heat to medium and add the sage. Cook until the butter turns nut-brown and the sage shrivels, then reduce the heat to a minimum.

3 When the pasta is just about done, scoop out a cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta.

Immediately add the pasta to the butter-sage mixture and raise the heat to medium. Add ¾ of the cup of pasta water and stir; the mixture will be loose and a little soupy.

Cook for about 30 seconds, or until some of the water is absorbed and the pasta is perfectly done.

4 Stir in the cheese; the sauce will become creamy. Thin it with a little more water if necessary.

Season liberally with pepper and salt to taste, and serve immediately, passing more cheese at the table if you like.

Spaghetti carbonara

Cream is not necessary here, egg yolks are better than whole eggs, and a combination of parmesan and pecorino gives the dish a lovely balance.

Be careful not to cook the yolks, and add the pasta cooking water gently – you want a yellow and glossy sauce, not something thin and watery.

Serves 4

400g dried spaghetti

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

150g pancetta, cut into thick, short matchsticks

Black pepper

4 large egg yolks, beaten

100g parmesan, grated

20g pecorino, grated

1 Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the spaghetti according to the packet’s instructions.

2 Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan and saute the pancetta until it is starting to crisp and is turning golden brown.

3 Just before the spaghetti is done, scoop out a cupful of the cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta and transfer to the pan of pancetta.

While still on a low heat, coat every strand of spaghetti with the oil and make sure the pancetta is well incorporated. Add a few good twists of black pepper, too.

4 Remove the pan from the heat. Add the egg yolks and parmesan, then stir well with a splash or two of cooking water. Continue until the glossy sauce coats all the pasta strands.

5 Divide equally on to four warmed plates. Add the grated pecorino and a few more twists of black pepper.