Test Kitchen: Make a creamy pasta sauce with roasted red peppers

After a recent interview with Lidia Bastianich, I was reminded of how simple, yet satisfying, pasta dishes are. Whether you toss pasta with some garlic and oil, a zesty marinara or go a few extra steps with a cream sauce, it’s a satisfying dish with just a little effort.

Cream sauces with pasta are among my favorites. I love the smooth texture and ultrarich flavor, which means extra fat and calories. And if you’ve started the year out vowing to get healthy or be mindful of what you’re eating, pasta with cream sauce is a sure-fire diet buster. But you can dial back the numbers by swapping out the cream for another dairy ingredient like regular or fat-free half-and-half.

In developing this recipe, I turned to cream cheese and roasted red peppers. When you roast red peppers, they become soft and sweet. You can then puree them into a thin sauce. To roast red peppers, place them under the broiler until they are blackened and charred on all sides. Remove, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. When cool enough to handle, remove the charred skin. And it’s OK if you don’t get all the skin off.

If you want to save time, buy jarred roasted red peppers.

Pairing the roasted red pepper sauce with shrimp was an easy option because shrimp is one of my staple ingredients. I always have raw or cooked shrimp tucked away in the freezer to resolve the dinnertime dilemma. Shrimp is also one of those ingredients that can transform any dish into something special and even elegant.

Today’s dish was also a reminder of the new way I cook pasta, especially when there is just the two of us. And it’s super easy. Last spring, a YouTube video surfaced showing Harold McGee, who writes about the chemistry of food and cooking, showing how to cook pasta in a minimal amount of water.

In the video, McGee puts a good amount of dry spaghetti in a large, shallow skillet or frying pan. He adds cold water (about 1 1/2 quarts — not the typical 4 to 6 quarts called for in most directions) to just about cover the pasta and brings it to a boil. The cold water, McGee says, prevents the pasta from sticking together.

While there is a little effort in that you have to keep stirring the pasta, the method saves water and energy. I tried it and it does work. McGee’s explanation of why this method works is “because the noodles absorb water only very slowly at temperatures much below the boil, so little happens to them in the few minutes it takes for the water to heat up.”

Shrimp with Spicy Roasted Red Pepper Cream

Serves: 4

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

8 oz. spaghetti

6 oz. roasted red peppers, drained

4 oz. 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup low-sodium vegetable broth or chicken broth

3 garlic cloves, peeled, chopped

1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 1/4 lb. cooked, peeled large shrimp

1/2 cup chopped parsley

6 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese

To prepare the pasta, place it in a large skillet and cover with water and season with kosher salt. Bring to a boil and cook, while stirring, until pasta is al dente. Much of the water will absorb into the pasta. Reserve any pasta cooking water and drain the pasta. Keep the pasta warm.

Place the red peppers, cream cheese, vegetable broth and garlic in a food processor and process until smooth; scraping down the sides as needed. Pour mixture into a large skillet.

Cook over medium heat 5 minutes, stirring often, until thoroughly heated. Add the crushed red pepper flakes and shrimp, and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 to 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Remove from heat. Serve over hot cooked pasta. Sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan cheese.

From and tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.