It’s as easy as boiling water and counting to 4. 

Sure, spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. But for me pasta is also a great side dish for almost any protein, especially in the winter. Better yet, using my four-step pasta formula, I can build all kinds of pasta combos that start with creative shapes and end with surprises on top. It couldn't be easier! Here's how it works. 

Credit: Getty / sal61

Step 1: Pick a pasta shape

Choose a shape or style of pasta that works well with the rest of your meal, and plan for six ounces of dried pasta to serve two people as a side dish. Here's my insider's guide to matching shapes to sides:

Braises: penne or cavatappi to capture the sauce or gravy

Light mains like fish and chicken: pappardelle, which eats lighter than some other shapes

Hearty mains like beef or pork: chewier pastas like rigatoni

Step 2: Top with butter

Sure, you can use plain butter here, but if you only have three ways to bring flavor to your pasta, make them all count! For me, this means compound butter. I buy pre-made butters from brands including D'Artagnan, Isola, and Kerrygold, or I make my own and store in small portions in the freezer for ease. You will need one tablespoon of butter for every six ounces of pasta.

White and black truffle butter for super luxurious flavor

Roasted garlic butter for a rustic heft

Black garlic butter for some sweetness

Porcini butter for an earthy meatiness

Smoked paprika butter for both color and gentle smoky heat

Step 3: Add an intense flavor boost

Here's where you tuck in some delicious flavor to make your pasta side dish sing—an item that packs a wallop in a small amount. Depending on how intense the flavor is, you'll need between ½ tablespoon and 1 ½ tablespoons per six ounces of pasta. Use these ideas to get started: 

Caramelized onion

Sun-dried tomato

Crispy bacon or pancetta cubes

Fried capers

And of course, grated cheese

A note: With items like citrus zest, start with ½ tablespoon. Crispy pancetta cubes? 1 ½ tablespoons. In general, begin with less; you can always add more.

Step 4: Top with a fresh herb

Don't skip this step! A fresh herbal hit brings both color and fresh flavor to your dish. Think about using these fresh (not dried!) herbs: 






And here's where you can think about pairing with your main dish. If you cook your stew with thyme, put fresh thyme in with your pasta. If your lamb is marinated with rosemary, add fresh rosemary to your pasta. Assume ½-1 tablespoon of chopped fresh herb per six ounces of pasta. More subtle herbs like basil, chives, parsley, or chervil you can use more; woody or intense herbs like sage, mint, rosemary, or thyme, start with less.

Some delicious pasta combinations 

This is all about playing and experimenting, but if you want a few to get you started, here are some of my favorite, dinner-tested combos:

Pappardelle with truffle butter, lemon zest, and chives

Cavatappi with porcini butter, pancetta, and sage

Penne with roasted garlic butter, Parmesan, and parsley

Orecchiette with smoked paprika butter, sundried tomatoes, and basil

Secret step 5: crunch! 

Want to take this pasta to an even higher place? Add a textural element like toasted nuts or breadcrumbs for crunch.