Food writer Colu Henry, who writes for The New York Times, released a wonderful book called Back Pocket Pasta in 2017. It’s a collection I often find myself picking up for week-night inspiration – not to cook a specific recipe, but to delve into the mindset of creating simple pasta suppers that can be eked out of even the most sparsely stocked kitchen pantry.
he genius of really great Italian pasta recipes is often just that. Take the classic cacio e pepe, a luscious dish made with only a little pecorino cheese, freshly ground black peppercorns, cooked pasta and a drop of its starchy cooking liquid. Carbonara, al pomodoro, puttanesca… the list goes on, proof that the simple ones are almost always the best.
In this column, I am constantly trying to arm you with recipes that can get you through the week, minus any kitchen meltdowns. And this week it’s all about back-pocket pasta: easy recipes that can be rustled up with what you most likely have in the kitchen.
I don’t think there’s a time of the year I don’t crave garlic mushrooms with pasta. In my cookbook Meals in Minutes, I included a fusion – gasp – recipe that involved mushrooms, garlic, soy sauce and butter, to make an umami-packed spaghetti that is ridiculously devourable. But I have recently come back to the classic dish that inspired it: pasta (your choice, though I prefer tagliatelle), mushrooms, cream and garlic – beyond that, my only embellishment is onions fried gently until golden brown.
Next up is a cheat’s ragù with sausage and fennel seeds that makes a regular appearance on our midweek menu, but recently I cooked a variation of it, upping the spice levels and using tinned cherry tomatoes. If you can get your hands on good-quality sausages from your butcher, you’ve got a pasta dinner in minutes.
Lastly, a recipe that falls somewhere between soup, stew and saucy pasta. Orecchiette – those little pasta ears you can see nonnas making by hand in the streets of Bari – bulk out a rich tomato soup with spinach and chickpeas. Humble ingredients with impressive results.
One Pot Tomato Pasta Soup
Cook time: 25 mins
Somewhere between a soup and a stew, this one-pot wonder is ladled, steaming, into bowls for the ultimate cold-day comfort food. A recipe which is at its best when you choose really good ingredients.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 tsp chilli flakes
2 x 400g tins of San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
Leftover Parmesan rinds
1 litre organic beef stock
250g orecchiette pasta
100g baby spinach leaves
400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Sea salt and ground black pepper
Parsley, roughly chopped
Parmesan cheese shavings
Extra-virgin olive oil
1. Heat a medium-sized casserole over a medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Fry the onion, garlic, carrot and celery until tender, 6-8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Add the chilli flakes and fry for a further minute, then add the crushed tomatoes and stir through, along with the Parmesan rinds.
3. Pour in the beef stock and bring to a steady boil before adding the orecchiette and cooking for 10 minutes or so, until the pasta is al dente.
4. Stir through the spinach and chickpeas, and cook until the spinach is wilted. Season to taste and serve hot garnished with freshly chopped parsley, a generous grating of Parmesan and a drizzle of your best extra-virgin olive oil.
Creamy Garlic Mushroom Pasta
Cook time: 30 mins
Hunt down a selection of mushrooms to add flavour and texture to this recipe.
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
50g butter, cut into pieces
500g mixed wild mushrooms, torn into bite-size pieces
450g bucatini pasta
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
50ml dry white wine
250ml double cream
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
15g Parmesan (about ½ cup), finely grated, plus more for serving
Small handful of parsley, chopped
Salt and black pepper
1. Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a small frying pan over a low-to-medium heat.
2. Add the onion and season with salt. Sauté for 15-20 minutes until caramelised, stirring regularly.
3. While the onion is cooking, get a sauté pan on a medium heat.
4. Add the remaining 2 tbsp of oil along with the butter to the pan. Once the butter has melted, add the mushrooms. Cook for about 10 minutes, turning over regularly in the pan, allowing them to sit a little to turn golden.
5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt well. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions.
6. Add the caramelised onions to the mushrooms along with the garlic. Next, stir through the wine; give it a minute to reduce, then stir through the cream. Add the lemon to this, along with lots of freshly ground black pepper.
7. Serve topped with the Parmesan and parsley.
Spicy Pantry Pasta
Cook time: 20 mins
A really impressive pasta dinner for which you more than likely have the ingredients hanging out in your kitchen cupboards already! Add some good-quality sausagemeat to the mix and you have a dark and spicy ragù in minutes.
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, finely chopped
450g Italian sausage, casings removed
1 garlic clove
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 x 400g tin of cherry tomatoes
25g pecorino cheese
Small handful basil leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the oil in a large heavy-based sauté pan.
2. Add the onion and sweat for 5-6 minutes, stirring regularly. The onions should be softened at this point.
3. Add the sausage to the pan and break up. Cook this for 6-7 minutes.
4. Add the garlic along with the oregano, chilli flakes and fennel seeds before stirring through the tomatoes. Simmer for 10-15 minutes over a low heat until reduced a little. Season to taste.
5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with salt and add the pasta to this. Cook the spaghetti according to the package instructions. Drain and add to the sausage pasta sauce.
6. Blitz the pecorino until fine in a food processor.
7. Serve in bowls topped with the finely chopped pecorino and some basil leaves.
Nuts about butter
I’ve been loving delving into the world of new Irish food products since returning home, and one that I’ve been using for breakfast, lunch and dinner is Harry’s Nut Butter. It’s next-level peanut butter that’s been injected with spice and flavour from roasted peanut pieces, paprika, sesame oil, garlic and chilli. Perfect splodged on toast or simmered with coconut milk and aromatics for a late noodle fix. harrysnutbutter.com
Not only do Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms grow great-quality Irish shiitake mushrooms, they also produce a great pantry ingredient perfect for the autumn months. If you’ve got soups, stews and risottos on the brain, this Soup Mix will infuse them with a deep, meaty mushroom flavour in the form of dried wild and cultivated mushrooms.
Foam in Bundoran
A highlight of our recent getaway to Donegal and Sligo was a stop at Foam, a little café in the heart of Bundoran. A favourite with local surfers, it offers really great coffee via Cloud Picker, plus sweet and savoury treats, and a seriously good dal that’s the perfect antidote to any cold-weather surfing you might tackle this autumn. Well worth a visit. foambundoran.com