Take Your Pasta to the Next Level with Chef Sarah Grueneberg's Tips

In her cookbook Listen to Your Vegetables, the acclaimed Chicago chef encourages you to get personal with produce—and to save your pasta water.

Sarah Gruenberg Chicago chef
Photo: Stephen Hamilton

In 2017, chef Sarah Grueneberg earned a James Beard Foundation Award for her restaurant Monteverde. (Fun fact: The restaurant's name means green mountain in Italian, and her last name translates the same in German.) Her debut cookbook, Listen to Your Vegetables (Harvest, $45) is organized by vegetable and full of approachable, inventive recipes for salads, side dishes, and of course, pasta. "Pasta's the palette," she says. "I love pasta so much because it's a blank canvas for you to be really creative and to let all the vegetables shine."

Listen to your Vegetables cookbook by Sarah Grueneberg
Courtesy of Harvest

You're a native Texan, but your love for Italian food was cultivated in Chicago?

I moved here in 2005 to work at Spiaggia, a fantastic four-star Italian restaurant in the Mag Mile. Lots of storied chefs came through that kitchen. I didn't know anything about Italian food. It took me a while to get my bearings, but I worked my way up and ultimately became executive chef in 2008. With that promotion, chef Tony Mantuano sent me to Italy for a few weeks to train and absorb the culture, and that was it—I was hooked. I fell in love, and I wanted to shift my focus into deep-diving into regional Italian food. The culture, the people, the stories, the products. Before unification, Italy's states operated on their own, almost as kingdoms. That's why the food culture is so varied and rich and regional—why bolognese is from Bologna.

Your book talks a lot about "the Italian way" of cooking or approaching vegetables. What does that mean?

Well, I think they listen to them! What I mean is, Italians have a relationship with ingredients. They shop frequently, and they buy what calls out their name at the market. They create food around seasonality. The focus of the cooking is the vegetables, and how they play into the dish, followed by the pasta, meat and seafood—and of course also great breads.

What is a vegetable that you'd like people to take a second look at, or give more love to in their kitchen?

Winter squashes. Pre-cut butternut is a great time-saver, I call for it in the book, but people should try delicata, acorns—all those squashes that make you ask, "Wait, is that an ornament or is that edible?" And then also artichokes.

Ooh, yeah. Artichokes totally intimidate me!

Throughout my book, we have illustrations that reveal what I hear the vegetables saying to me—their personality. The artichoke is shown as a little warrior with his armor. Because botanically, an artichoke is a flower, and all of those leaves and thorns are its protective, defensive armor. They are quite challenging, so I go into everything about cleaning and preparing them. My recipe for Roman braised artichokes is pretty fantastic and a great way to celebrate them.

Your book also introduces the "pasta marriage ceremony," a technique of slightly under-cooking pasta, then finishing it in a big skillet with the sauce, along with some hot water saved from the pasta pot.

I always tell my cooks, you can cook pasta until it's completely done in water, and just mix it with sauce, and it'll be good. But if you actually cook the pasta in some of the sauce with a little pasta water, they meld together, and that tastes better. The starchy pasta water helps bind the sauce and makes the final dish more creamy or buttery without adding fat.

Over the years, I had seen this in recipes, but it took me a long time (and your book) to realize it's something I should always do—scoop out some water before I drain the pot. I now do it intuitively, even for weeknight spaghetti.

Oh, that makes me so happy. Almost the only time I don't do a pasta marriage ceremony is with pesto. You don't want to cook the basil.

Sauce-Simmered Spaghetti al Pomodoro
Stephen Hamilton

Your Sauce-Simmered Spaghetti al Pomodoro swings the other way though.

Yeah, that pasta marriage ceremony is a full-blown Italian weekend wedding. And a baptism. They had a baby. The pasta spends almost the whole time in the pasta sauce. This recipe is just a giant hug.

The sauce calls for oven-roasted tomatoes, garlic—the usual suspects. But then it's topped with the Middle Eastern spice blend za'atar?

My friends went to Israel and brought me za'atar. They told me it was great on tomato salad, so I was like, "Oh, maybe I can put this on a fresh tomato sauce." It takes traditional spaghetti to another spot, which I love. If not za'atar, you could top it with Parm or chili oil. Or nothing— the spaghetti al pomodoro is fundamentally delicious on its own.

So, the pasta marriage ceremony is key. What about salt? How much should go in the water?

In general, I've cut back on how much I salt pasta water, but still, you want to think in tablespoons, not pinches. And keep the shape in mind. If you're cooking angel hair, you might want your water extra salty because the pasta is only going to be in there for like a minute. But if you're cooking a big rigatoni, use less, because it will spend much longer in the water.

That brings us to shapes. How do you pair shapes and sauces?

I think of pastas as either twirl shapes or stabbing shapes. (Stabbing sounds really terrible! But you know, that motion when you use your fork to pick up the pasta pieces, versus strands you're twirling.) The corto (short) pastas are better for chunky, heartier sauces. The lungo (long) pastas like linguini, spaghetti, angel hair, bucatini prefer a looser sauce like carbonara, amatriciana or pesto. You can make a pasta dish with the same sauce, but two different shapes, and it'll eat totally differently.

One shape that stymies me is orecchiette. The cups always stick together and don't cook evenly. Any tips?

It is a hard shape. Make sure your water is super boiling, and scatter the orecchiette in while stirring. Because with any pasta shape, wherever the hot water sets on the starch first is the glue. That's why you need a big pot to cook pasta—no little pots. Big pot. That way the water temperature won't go down when the pasta goes in. You need motion in the pot.

Do you have any favorite pasta brands?

I really like De Cecco as an everyday pasta, or Mancini, which you can find online. In general, any time you see the words bronze-cut or bronze-die on the package, that's a good sign. If you're not sure, peek in and look at the pasta. If it looks kind of rough on the outside, that's from the process of being extruded through traditional bronze dies. All those little microscopic rough edges will help the sauce adhere to the pasta. A lot of the bigger pasta houses use Teflon dies, so the pasta is more smooth and slick. If you really want to go to the next level of pasta—like "I know what's up"—then use bronze-cut pasta.

Last question, just for fun: What are your favorite spots in Chicago these days to have someone else cook for you?

I really like Mi Tocaya. Diana Dávila is amazing and cooks insane, Midwest-inspired Mexican food. So beautiful. I also really like Genie Kwon and Tim Flores, and the Filipino breakfasts at Kasama. (You can also get all of Genie's amazing sweets.) And I often pick up bagels from Mindy's Bakery and pop them in the freezer, so I always have bagels at home. They're so good.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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