#PantryPasta has been trending for a while now, and I think somewhere in the midst of all the excitement, the term got misinterpreted. Search “pantry pasta” and there are a billion different recipes online. Some of them call for porcini mushrooms. Ohhh, let me just reach into my stash of porcini mushrooms that I have lying around, because I’m the mushroom king! “Deglaze with wine”? Look, pal, wine isn’t something I just have on hand. I either buy it to cook with, or buy it to drink; either way, that bottle isn’t making it through the night. Bottom line: artichokes, olives, cans of San Marzanos—these aren’t things I always have in my pantry for “pantry pasta.” My budget is tight. I don’t go to the grocery store, look at a can of capers, and fondly mutter, “I’ll use these one day.” That’s insane. I shop for the necessities, and only branch out from staples if I’ve incurred some grand monetary windfall like finding ten dollars in a pair of shorts I don’t wear anymore because they’ve got stains on them.
Technically, any recipe for pasta could constitute a “pantry pasta.” Everybody’s got different pantries—we’ve all got different ingredients lying around. But I do think the concept of pantry pasta should have a certain unifying ethos. Let’s break that down.
For one thing, any recipe for pantry pasta should include minimal ingredients. Those ingredients should also be readily available to home cooks of any level. Too many bells and whistles undermine the spirit of the concept. Also, nothing too bougie. If any specific brands or specialty items are required, the costs outweigh the mass appeal. Simple and cheap is the name of the game.
For another thing, the pasta itself must be store-bought. “Open up a box quick” should be the baseline. We all know the fresh stuff is great, but supermarket pasta can be great too, if it’s treated well: Salt the boiling water generously and always make sure to finish cooking the pasta for the last few minutes in your sauce. For the love of God, never ever put the cooked pasta in a serving bowl and then top it with sauce. The flavors need to permeate the noodle; everything needs to cook together.
Thirdly, pantry pasta should have bite. The recipes below carry a lot of acid, garlic, or salt, and that’s because strong flavor is a great remedy for a lack of resources. I’ll also admit that I have a proclivity for tart flavors. Puttanesca cracks my top five pastas for this reason.
So lets put these tenets into practice and make some honest-to-God pantry pasta—as in, pasta that you can actually afford to make tonight that probably won’t require a shopping list. Below are some ideas; if any of them lists exact measurements, that means I made it with 1/4 pound of spaghetti. That’s a reasonable amount of pasta for one person, I think, even though it’s hard to eat a reasonable amount of pasta.
A couple notes: When you make a quick pasta dish, finish it with some extra virgin olive oil before serving. The finishing oil really helps smooth out the sharp flavors and adds some additional depth. Good oil elevates a basic pasta dish to a new level of decadence. Having some good Parmigiano Reggiano on hand always helps, too. The dishes below don’t list cheese in the ingredients, but of course they will benefit from it. Again, I don’t know what’s in your kitchen; just use what you’ve got. Now, more than ever, pantry pasta is alive and well. Here are the ones I’ve been messing with at home the most, which you can also see on Instagram.
Fresh tomato sauce
A can of San Marzano tomatoes runs pretty expensive at the grocery store, but you know what’s cheap? Fresh, on-the-vine tomatoes. A fresh tomato sauce takes less than 30 minutes to make. Three medium tomatoes and three crushed cloves of garlic are a good ratio for an acidic and bitey sauce. Just cook the garlic in a pan with a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat; after it turns fragrant, rough chop the tomatoes and toss them in raw. You can also take the time to boil the tomatoes separately and peel off the skin, but I don’t mind the skin on, and in the end you won’t notice anyway. Continue to cook the tomatoes down while adding a little bit of water so the sauce doesn’t dry out, then after about 20 minutes throw in a generous helping of chopped parsley. Finish the sauce with a little pasta water as you transfer the spaghetti to the pan.
Bacon fat and onions
The other day I set out to make a pasta dish with only onions and bacon fat from that morning’s breakfast, and it worked beautifully. Get 2 tablespoons of bacon fat hot on medium-high heat and add half a diced medium white onion. Diced onions should caramelize quicker, and the key is to not move them very much for the first few minutes. I flipped mine after about 5 minutes, then cooked for as long as 15 while stirring intermittently. Turn up the heat if you have to. As soon as the onions fully caramelize, looking dark golden and glistening sweet, season them with salt and pepper. Now hit the pan with a full cup of pasta water. (This simple method is very similar to cacio e pepe.) Bring down to a medium heat. Toss in the pasta, then salt and pepper again, stirring and flipping as needed. If it gets dry, add a little more pasta water. The goal is to finish cooking the pasta with the sauce, infusing it with the flavors from the starchy water, bacon fat, and onion. This should take about 3-5 more minutes. You will be left with a silky, cohesive pasta and a smoky, sweet, fat-laden flavor that’s simple and nourishing.
If you’ve got 1 cup of heavy cream and 1 lemon, you can make a really tasty lemon cream pasta in 15 minutes. Cream will reduce all on its own without the help of cheese or roux to thicken it. Stir the cream on medium heat with a rubber spatula until it starts to thicken (about 6 minutes), then squeeze in the juice of a full lemon. Salt and pepper the sauce. Add in the pasta, a little of the pasta water, and chopped parsley. Then add salt and pepper again when the pasta is in the pan. Hey, you’re getting the hang of this. Simple, but very satisfying.
Garlic + anchovy
In the past I’ve written about how much I slammed canned anchovies when I was dirt poor. A can of anchovies packs so much flavor (and sodium) that it pretty much does all the salting for you. Olive oil, crushed garlic, and anchovies are all you need to make a flavorful meal. Once the garlic is fragrant in a saucepan, add a desired amount of anchovy (try three strips) and cook another 2 minutes. Add some pasta water and pepper. Whenever I do a garlic and anchovy dish, I tend to blast it with a ton of parsley at the end. Parsley helps even out the saltiness.
In short: garlic, tomato, and chile peppers cooked in olive oil. Use the aforementioned ratio of three crushed cloves to three medium tomatoes and add whatever chiles you like. I like a tablespoon of crushed red pepper, but if I have serrano, jalapeno, Anaheim, or banana peppers, those usually go in there. A quick, oily red sauce overloaded with banana pepper rings is one of my go-to pantry pastas. Killing your taste buds with heat is a good way to forget you that you didn’t pick up any chicken or pork at the grocery store.