One of the most common dinners in the Robicelli household is pasta, cooked in heavily salted water until perfectly al dente and then tossed in random-crap-we-found-in-the-fridge sauce. My husband and I have a combined 30 years of professional cooking experience, so this dish slaps 99% of the time. The other 1% of the time, it slaps so hard that after one bite I leave the dinner table with a mouth full of food, confiscate the big bowl of pasta from my family, and stage an impromptu photo shoot because I know in my heart that I have a moral obligation to share that recipe with our readers. Today, ladies and gentleman, my husband—the accidental author of this pasta—is a hero to you all.
As I typed out this recipe, I realized that it just so happens to make an excellent grocery list: all of these items are things I buy regularly from Aldi or Lidl, where I do most of my shopping for staple ingredients. The point of a well-stocked kitchen isn’t just to have things on hand that are listed in the recipes you use—it’s also to have things on hand that can be made delicious with very little little effort. Grape tomatoes are always in my fridge, because they can turn almost every lazy dinner into something nice: aside from pasta and salads, you can throw them on a sheet pan with roasting chicken thighs, or into a hot skillet with some fish—or just roast a few pints with salt, pepper, and olive oil and serve with crusty bread. We had bought fresh spinach because it was on sale, and we’re big fans of leafy greens in general. Cabbage, kale, curly endive, escarole... it’s all good. We also keep spinach in the freezer, just in case. Dark leafy greens can become entree-sized salads, turned into soup with little more than broth and beans, or simply sauteed with garlic and oil.
We keep artichoke hearts and Kalamata olives in the pantry at all times, because they’re just generally fantastic. Same with capers. These are things that are loaded with two of the most important elements you need to consider when putting together a dish: salt and acid. I swear, the one thing that can take most dishes from good up to “holy shit” is a wee jolt of acid that’s just enough to wake up the palate. If you’re ever tasting for seasoning and can’t put your finger on what’s missing, add a squirt of lemon or a teaspoon of olive brine and see if that does the trick.
Packages of pre-cooked chicken sausage is the kind of meat you want to store in your freezer for those nights you don’t have a single ounce of creativity left in your body. The nights where you’re too tired to even look for a recipe, much less run to the grocery store. Chicken sausage can be sliced and sauteed with a can of white beans (why not throw in some grape tomatoes while you’re at it?). It can be quickly browned served on a bed of oily, garlicky dark leafy greens. It can be microwaved and eaten with saltine crackers and baby carrots. A dinner of precooked chicken sausage isn’t supposed to be fancy—it’s supposed to be there when you need it, and it does a damn good job of that. As for the feta cheese, that’s not a must for me, but it is required that my fridge have a dedicated cheese drawer where a rotating cast of different varieties can always be found. This time, I had feta to use, but had I not, there were bits of Asiago, chevre, Parmesan, Pecorino, and a few others to choose from. Whatever you have that’s nice and salty will do just fine.
I’ve got a family of three adults and two adolescent boys to feed, hence why this recipe calls for two pounds of pasta—plus I like making a little extra of everything so I can have leftovers for lunch in the coming days. You can halve this if you’re only cooking for one or two, but don’t get too fussy on the measurements—if you like a lot of olives, add a lot of olives. I’m not going to stop you. You might want to go the planned leftovers route though, because I was not kidding about how good this pasta is. I should probably buy my husband some flowers or something to thank him for this.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 (1-pint) containers grape tomatoes, halved
- 4 fat cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp. red chili flakes (optional)
- 4 oz. jar quartered marinated artichoke hearts, drained
- 1/3 cup sliced Kalamata olives
- 2 Tbsp. brine from the jar of the Kalamata olives
- 2 cups chicken stock
- Juice of 2 large lemons
- 2 tsp. dried oregano
- 2 packages precooked chicken sausage (any flavor—we used spinach & feta)
- 1 (8-oz.) bag fresh spinach, or 1 package frozen spinach, thawed, drained, and pressed dry with paper towels
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 4 oz. feta cheese
- 2 lbs. rigatoni
Put a large, heavily salted pot of water over high heat and start bringing it to a boil. (Always do this step first—if the water starts boiling before you’re ready to make the pasta, you can turn it down to a simmer and keep the lid on the pan.)
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the tomatoes in the olive oil with a big pinch of salt, stirring occasionally, until they take on some color and become jammy, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and chili flakes (if using) and cook for another minute or so until pleasantly fragrant, then add the artichokes, olives, olive brine, oregano, and chicken stock. Turn the heat up to high; when the sauce boils, turn the heat back down to medium and simmer until it reduces by 25%, about 7-10 minutes. Add the chicken sausage, and reduce the heat to low while you boil the pasta.
Cook the rigatoni until al dente, scoop about two cups of pasta water out of the pot with a measuring cup, then drain the pasta and toss with the spinach in a large bowl until the spinach wilts. Whisk the butter and lemon juice into the sauce, then add to the pasta and toss well. If you find the pasta to be a bit too dry, add some reserved pasta water. (It’s handy to keep this around while eating, because the pasta might absorb most of the sauce before you’re ready for seconds, and you can always add a bit of pasta water to bring the dish back to life.)
Sprinkle the pasta with feta and additional crushed red pepper and serve immediately.