Back Pocket Pasta

Three Pasta Sauces for Your Everyday Life

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As a young girl, l knew that the kitchen was the place to hear my Nonni tell stories of my great-grandparents and the hardships that came with immigration. They arrived in this country from southern Italy at the turn of the century, and food was the thing that brought everything and everyone together. I loved hearing how my great-grandmother and namesake, Maria-Nicola (who also went by Colu), warmed day-old bean-soaking water and poured it over stale, toasted bread and drizzled it with cheese and olive oil for a makeshift "soup." Or how she rolled out ravioli dough with what was available in their tiny tenement–a broomstick. It was these tales and the recipes that were born out of poverty and necessity that stirred my passion for food. They taught me how much was possible with whatever we have access to.

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Growing up with this heritage also came with a number of steadfast holiday traditions such as celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve and making Pizza Piena, a rich pie filled with eggs, cheese, and cured meats, on Easter. All year long, pasta was served two to three times a week, with sauces like tuna-clam, pasta e fagiole, and marinara in constant rotation.

Sundays were reserved for pasta with meat sauce, and those were my favorite days. I'd wake to the sputtering of hot olive oil as meatballs crisped in the pan while sauce simmered on the stove, its smell slowly making its way up the stairs to my bedroom, sweet and savory all at once. I would jump out of bed and race downstairs eager for a plate of sauce, a meatball, and lots of grated Pecorino cheese. It's still my favorite breakfast.

Pasta means comfort and it means family. It's the food I return to time and time again to celebrate a triumph and to drown my sorrows equally. But perhaps its greatest achievement in my life is that it's a constant reminder of who I am and where I came from. In these past few painful and unstable weeks, I have realized that we should never take that for granted. I am grateful that I have the privilege to carry these stories forward.

Marinara

Save this meal to make when you're weary from travel, just moved homes, or anytime in between. This has been my go-to comfort food for as long as I can remember. The sauce requires only a handful of ingredients, which I've been able to find everywhere I've lived. I remove the garlic after it turns to a pale gold so it flavors the oil but doesn't burn. Then I add it back with the tomatoes. I like to sprinkle lots of grated cheese and black pepper over my portion.

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Serves 4

Kosher salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 small onion, minced

One 28-ounce can diced San Marzano tomatoes

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley, plus more for serving

Freshly ground black pepper

¾ pound cavatappi, or other pasta of your choosing

Grated Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano cheese, for serving

Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of the salt and return to a rolling boil.
  2. While the water comes to a boil, prepare the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until pale golden, about 2 minutes. Remove the garlic and set aside.
  3. Add the onion to the pan and sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes to the pan. Fill the tomato can halfway with water, swish the water around, and add it to the pan. Return the garlic to the pan along with the parsley. Season the sauce with salt and black pepper and bring it to a simmer.
  4. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente according to package directions. Scoop the pasta directly into the skillet and toss to coat, adding ¼ cup of pasta water or more (up to 1 cup), as needed to loosen up the sauce.
  5. Serve in bowls with lots of grated Pecorino Romano and, if desired, additional chopped parsley and red pepper flakes.

Cacio e Pepe

With only three main ingredients, pasta, pepper, and cheese — which you should always have on hand, by the way — this classic Roman dish comes together in minutes. It's very important to use the best-quality ingredients you can find: freshly milled pepper from whole peppercorns and a wedge of sharp, salty Pecorino Romano. And although purists may object, I think part of the beauty of this recipe is that you can add to the dish to create interesting variations. I've thrown in roasted broccolini with lemon, nuts, leftover sausage, and other things lying about in my fridge. They've all worked.

Serves 4

2 tablespoons kosher salt

¾ pound long pasta, such as taglierini, bucatini, or spaghetti

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more for serving

1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt and return to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to package directions.

2. When the pasta is about halfway done cooking, start the sauce: Melt the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pepper and stir until it is aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add ½ cup of the pasta water directly from the pasta pot and bring to a simmer. Stir together and cook for 1 minute, until the sauce emulsifies.

3. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the pasta and Pecorino Romano directly to the skillet, tossing vigorously until all strands are coated and the cheese melts. Add another ½ cup of pasta water and cook for 1 minute more.

4. Plate in bowls with additional grated cheese and black pepper, if desired.

Pasta Puttanesca

The name of this pasta cries shelf dinner (and plenty of other scandalous things). After researching the origins of this Italian dish, I still couldn't find a straight answer, but I think we all can agree that it uses many items that one should always have on hand: olives, capers, anchovies, and tomatoes. If you don't have anchovies, use tuna or sardines, or skip the fish altogether! No oil-cured black olives? Use whatever jar of cocktail olives is hanging around in your fridge. What's important here is a red, salty sauce with some funk — get down and dirty with it.

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

One 2-ounce can anchovy fillets

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more if you like extra heat

1 tablespoon tomato paste

One 28-ounce can diced San Marzano tomatoes

1 cup pitted and halved oil-cured black olives

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed well if salt-packed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano, plus more for garnish

Kosher salt

¾ pound linguine

½ cup chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley, plus more for garnish

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2. While the water comes to a boil, prepare the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until pale golden, about 2 minutes. Remove the garlic and set aside.

3. Reduce the heat under the skillet to low. Add the anchovies and red pepper flakes and sauté until the anchovies have melted and the red pepper flakes are aromatic, about 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and stir until dissolved. Return the cooked garlic to the pan and stir in the tomatoes. Add the olives, capers, and oregano, and allow the sauce to simmer while you cook the pasta.

4. Add 2 tablespoons of the salt to the pot of boiling water and return to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to package directions.

5. Add the pasta directly to the sauce and toss to coat, adding ¼ cup of pasta water or more (up to 1 cup), as needed to loosen up the sauce. Add the parsley and toss again.

6. Plate in bowls and garnish with additional oregano and parsley, if desired.

Colu Henry is the author of Back Pocket Pasta. She lives in Hudson, New York, with her husband, Chad, and their spaniel rescue mutt, Josh.

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