In hard times, I eat a lot of pasta. It’s easy, it’s comforting, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t demand a lot of headspace to pull off. I throw together pasta on a weeknight without having to look through too many recipes or go out to buy groceries. I’ll grab a chunk of aged cheese from one corner of my fridge, take the butter from its designated cubby, and within minutes, a glossy, emulsified sauce waits on the stove as my noodles boil.
As news of coronavirus continues to pour in, and government officials announce that restaurants and bars must close, most of us are finding ourselves at home a lot more often. As I adjust to this new routine, I’m leaning even more heavily on the easy dishes that bring me comfort and don’t necessarily send me running to the grocery store for hard-to-find ingredients.
It’s likely you already have many of these ingredients stored in cabinets and lost somewhere in your fridge. If you do have to pick up some cured pork products or a new block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, try to order them from a local shop that could use the business. (Now is also a great time to support your favorite local restaurant by buying a tote bag or ordering a gift card for later use.)
In the meantime, recreate some of your favorite pasta dishes at home. There are plenty of pasta recipes linked throughout this post, but feel free to improvise, too. Have canned tomatoes, guanciale, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, but not seeing a recipe that checks off all of those ingredients? Have some fun, and let us know what you make in the comments!
You’re going to have a hard time throwing together a delicious pasta dinner if you don’t have any pasta. And on nights when I really can’t figure out what to cook, it’s comforting to know I have a few boxes of dried pasta ready to boil. It can be handy to keep a variety of pasta shapes on hand, so you have some options. Is it a spaghetti night, or are you in more of a fusilli mood? The world is your dried pasta box. And whatever pasta shape you land on, don’t forget to salt your water generously.
It’s easy enough to ensure you always have some dried pasta around, but if you want to pull off a full dinner without having to shop first, you’ll also have to keep some sauce-making staples in your pantry. Canned tomatoes are a great place to start.
We prefer to keep cans of whole peeled tomatoes on our shelves—they're the most versatile in that you can use the tomatoes whole, roughly crushed, lightly chunky, or puréed; plus, they don't have firming agents added to help them keep their shape, something that isn't true of many diced canned tomato products.
Whole canned tomatoes star in this tomato sauce that’ll go from pot to plate in 40 minutes. If you’ve got a little more time to spare—okay, a lot—try your hand at this slow-cooked but equally simple tomato sauce.
Good, Inexpensive Olive Oil
It’s so important to stock a solid extra-virgin olive oil for all sorts of cooking projects—not just for making pasta sauce. There’s a lot to take into consideration when you’re choosing an olive oil, but you don’t necessarily have to go for a top-shelf brand, especially not if the oil is going to get cooked. Our favorite everyday bottles are in the $20 per liter range and will serve you well for cooking pasta and beyond.
Many of our favorite pastas call for little more than olive oil, cheese (we’ll get to that), and a few other basic ingredients. If pretty much all you have is dried spaghetti and olive oil, you’ve already got more or less everything it takes to make Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, for instance. Have some basil, too? Try this easy Pesto alla Genovese. Make a double batch, and put it on everything for the rest of the week.
Plenty of Butter
Olive oil isn’t the only fat in town, and though butter might not be quite as long-lasting as bottled oil, it’s a great fat to keep in your fridge. Infused with sage and allowed to turn nutty and brown, it's an easy and quick sauce for gnocchi, or mix it vigorously with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to make a true Roman Alfredo sauce for fettuccine.
Cured Pork Products
Butter and olive oil will get you far, but there’s more to making delicious pasta than tossing butter and oil in a pan. Sometimes you need some salty, funky, flavor-packed meat (and its attendant fat). And that’s when we call on guanciale, pancetta, and a host of other cured pork products. It’s worth familiarizing yourself with the differences between various cured pork products, so you know what to look for at the grocery store or specialty market. Sliced into batons, and rendered down slowly, pancetta or guanciale will impart your pasta with tons of rich, deep flavor.
These fatty cuts release plenty of delicious fat as they cook, which gets emulsified into a sauce in recipes like pasta alla gricia. In this classic Roman dish, guanciale lends a smoky, complex flavor to a recipe that only calls for five ingredients. Plus, these products all last for quite a long time, so stock up now and you'll have them handy whenever you're in need.
Spicy, Funky ‘Nduja
While we’re on the subject of meats, I’d be remiss not to mention ‘nduja. I really, truly love this stuff; I even wrote an entire guide to ‘nduja. ‘Nduja is a spicy, slightly funky salume, cut with enough Calabrian chilies that it takes on a glorious reddish hue. An unusually high ratio of fat to lean meat means that while other salumi will harden as they hang and age, ‘nduja remains spreadable and meltingly soft. That makes it a perfect addition to all sorts of pasta sauces, where even the largest spoonful of ‘nduja will melt once it heats up. ‘Nduja’s powerful flavor will bolster and improve even the simplest tomato sauce, and it’ll take a beans-and-greens pasta dinner to new heights.
Garlic, Onions, and Shallots
Okay, it’s true: Garlic, onions, and shallots aren’t technically nonperishable pantry goods. But like the cured pork products listed above, these alliums will stay fresh and flavorful for quite a long time. And though they might not be the lead character in most pastas, they're damn near essential in one form or another in tons of pasta dishes.
When we talk about building layers of flavor, these are the ingredients we have in mind—the backup singers that never let us down. Shallots and garlic provide a sweet, caramelized base for our Pasta With Burst Cherry Tomatoes and XO Sauce, but you don’t necessarily need a recipe when you’ve got these ingredients on hand. Caramelize your thinly sliced onions, hit them with a bit of lemon zest and a glug of peppery olive oil, add some blistered tomatoes to the pan, and you’ve got a sauce fit for feasting.
A Few Hard Cheeses
The great thing about hard cheeses like Parmesan is that they last for a really, really long time. We’re big fans of real-deal Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, which has a sweet and nutty flavor; Grana Padano is another good option that can be substituted for parm in just about any recipe (just avoid the domestic knockoffs).
One of our very favorite ways to use the Italian superstar cheese is also the simplest. In a classic Roman-Style Fettuccine With Alfredo Sauce, Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of only three ingredients. You’ll combine butter and cheese in a bowl, and once your fettuccine—or, really, whatever pasta floats your boat—is al dente, you’ll add it to the bowl. The initial heat from the pasta will melt the butter, and an added splash of starchy pasta water will turn the contents of the bowl into a glossy, smooth sauce.
If you want to make a pasta with a little more heft, try your hand at this Spaghetti With Carbonara Sauce. A mixture of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano delivers all the flavor you’ll need, without making the pasta overly salty or sharp. Little bits of crisped guanciale provide texture in every bite.
Or go full-tang with a classic Cacio e Pepe, which blends sharp Pecorino Romano with lots and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Oh, and did I mention that none of these dishes takes more than 20 minutes to make. I can’t think of a better reason to keep a block of Parmesan or Pecorino in the back of your fridge.
Anchovies (Even If You Don't Like Them Yet)
Either you love them or you hate them. But you should really, truly give anchovies a chance—or a second chance. Much like ‘nduja, anchovies have a way of melting into the background of a dish, giving a boost of flavor that can’t always be identified. While you might think of anchovies as very fishy fish, we love the way they bring saltiness and umami to our food, without blowing it out of the water, so to speak.
A perfect example of this is our recipe for Spaghetti Puttanesca, where the anchovies serve to elevate and complement the briny, saltiness of olives and capers. I’m not in the business of tricking anyone, but I’m sure plenty of my friends would be surprised to find out there was a good amount of anchovy in the puttanesca sauce I’ve served them over the years.
Lots of Lemons
Now that we’ve worked our way through many of the ingredients that bring depth, richness, and flavor to a simple pasta, it’s time to talk about the brighter, lighter side: fresh citrus! A squeeze of lemon or a little zest can make all the difference between a flat, underwhelming sauce and one that sings. It’s comforting to know that even when all I have in the fridge is a single lemon and a nub of Parmigiano-Reggiano, I can make a delectable Pasta al Limone. Lemon zest, lemon juice, freshly cracked black pepper, and salty cheese work their magic and turn a plain mixture of butter and starchy pasta water into a smooth and glorious sauce.
Without the guidance of a recipe, there’s still no reason to shy away from fresh zest or a little squeeze of juice. A plate of Pasta With Butternut Squash and Sage Brown Butter might not call for zest, but a pinch never hurts. And if you really don’t have much except a lemon and some butter, the combination of browned butter, lemon zest, and black pepper blanketed over a bowl of pasta will never disappoint.
Bundles of Fresh Herbs
We’ve reached the final destination. You did it. With just some pantry staples, you put a beautiful, steaming bowl of pasta on the table. All that’s left to do is garnish. If you store herbs correctly, they can last for up to three weeks before you have to replenish your bouquets. I suggest keeping basil, parsley, mint, and cilantro around. A bowl of Spaghetti alle Vongole, for instance, doesn’t taste quite right until you’ve finished it with a generous heap of freshly chopped parsley, the leaves’ grassy green flavor working to balance out the salty clams and sharp white wine. But really, I can’t think of a pasta that doesn’t benefit from a little added herbage.
In addition to the tender herbs I’ve listed, stock up on woodsy herbs (the ones with thicker leaves and stems) like fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme, and fresh or dried oregano. They usually require a lighter hand than their finer-leafed counterparts, but used judiciously (and especially when allowed to infuse into the cooking fat first), they add an earthy, herbal musk that's hard not to love.
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