Regular readers of this column will know I am something of a pasta junkie. Despite having come of age in the Atkins era, I remain convinced that it is perfectly healthy to eat pasta for dinner three times a week.
For the past few months, though, I have been trying to wean myself off the stuff, more for the sake of variety and culinary challenge than anything else. While I'm still convinced that one of the tests of a cook is whether you can make a perfect cacio e pepe, I realized my parochialism was causing me to miss out on the wide world of grains. So I tucked my boxes of penne and spaghetti and orechiette in the back of the cupboard, and went out to forage.
Standing in front of the refrigerator, hungry and vaguely cranky, I saw the bag of spinach left over from last week's CSA share. I could sauté it with red pepper flakes and garlic.
So far, wheat berries and farro have proved excellent, and I even have a box of farina in the cupboard now, so I can execute a grown-up version of the silky Cream of Wheat my mom used to make when I was little. Millet and barley are next on my list.
This week, however, I fell off the wagon. A project I was working on demanded more of my time than usual, a friend had come to visit, and my dirty laundry pile was starting to seem like a monster hunched menacingly in a corner of my bedroom. Life got in the way of ambitious cooking projects. Pressed for time, I made pasta.
And I lived to tell about it. Because the truth is that pasta is pretty fantastic, especially when you also have a CSA box of vegetables to work with. As long as you have pasta in the cupboard, along with staples like a head of garlic, red pepper flakes, capers, black olives, anchovies, Parmesan or pecorino (or ideally both), some kind of vegetable, and maybe a few eggs—and a spare 30 minutes to combine some of these things—you will never go hungry.
It goes something like this. Standing in front of the refrigerator, hungry and vaguely cranky, I saw the bag of spinach left over from last week's CSA share. I could sauté it with red pepper flakes and garlic, then add some lemon juice and toss the whole thing with pasta and pecorino. The spinach would make me feel virtuous, and the gutsy flavors of the lemon, garlic, and pepper would hopefully wake me up enough to tackle the rest of the evening's work.
A smaller pasta, I thought, would work best here, so I pulled a box of farfalle out of the cupboard. I put the water on to boil with plenty of sea salt—pasta water should be really salty, "like the Mediterranean sea" as some cookbooks put it. That way the salt will cook into the pasta, and you won't end up with bland-tasting pasta with salt on top of it. I washed the spinach, chopped the garlic, and grated the cheese. When the water was boiling, I dropped in the pasta, then sautéed the garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil, adding the still-wet spinach when the garlic had just started to color. Once the spinach had wilted, I added a few squeezes of lemon juice and turned down the heat.
By this time, the pasta was cooked, and I drained it and dumped it in the pan of spinach with grated cheese on top, then tossed it all so that the cheese melted, the lemon and olive oil coated the pasta, and the spinach was distributed throughout. I'll head back to the wilds of amaranth and quinoa next week, but this time, a bowl of pasta and vegetables was exactly what I needed.