A few days ago I was riding in a car with two people who are far-better travelled than I, which is not a hard thing to be, because I am one of the least well-traveled people I know. These associates of mine were discussing Italy, specifically the food in Italy, and I realized, as I listened to them, that while it is certainly true I have never been to Italy, I am, for an ugly American, remarkably conversant on the subject of Italian food. It’s not just because I grew up in New Haven, which is a very Italian place, for a New England city. I chalk it down to two things: 1. my owning rather a lot of Italian cookbooks, considering my lack of real interest in Italian food and 2. my having worked, for many years, for a guy whose wife was from Sicily. He, unlike me, was very interested in Italian food, and had considerable access to it. Between his wife and their spending much of their year in Sicily, visiting her family, he knew quite a bit about Italian food — and even regional variations, because he was a traveling man. From him, I picked up a lot of data without trying to. I remember the time he bought some boxes of old issues of Gourmet magazine, even though they were pretty much without resale value. (I was, I should explain, working in a used/rare/out of print bookstore.) He just thought we’d find them fun, and we did. I spent hours paging through them. One issue caught my eye because the photograph on the cover featured a salad I could not imagine eating: it was oranges sliced thinly, scattered on a platter with red onions, also sliced thinly. What a bizarre combination. “My god,” I said, “who would eat that?” He said, “We eat it all the time in Italy,” he said, “It’s really delicious.” So I was the philistine. And, quite frankly, because I don’t like oranges, so when it comes to orange and red onion salad, I still am a philistine.
But other dishes I wouldn’t have imagined preparing, back then, are now second nature to me. One such dish is one I described while sitting in that car with those two well-traveled Americans discussing Italian cookery. “Oh, the anchovies!” one of them cried. “I love anchovies,” said the other. “I make a dish with anchovies all the time,” I said meekly. “My daughter really loves it.”
The other passenger in the car besides me, the mother of a toddler, perked up. “Really!” she said. “What is it?” I explained that it was just a pasta thing, with anchovies and garlic and olives and capers, no big deal really. “Could you send me a recipe?” she asked. I thought for a second, and she said, “It’s probably one of those things you don’t have a recipe for,” a bit glumly. I said, “No, no, I’m sure there are a thousand recipes for this, it’s just, I tend to just throw it together.”
Tonight was one of those nights when I threw it together. It was a night when I didn’t want to make a big production out of cooking. Frankly, I’d had a rather craptastic day, and I was tired, and I wanted something hot and savory that I could do without paying close attention. A lot of recipes for this are called Midnight Pasta, or Pasta Mezzanotte, or some variant thereof, but I’ll call it Natalie’s Pasta here. The technique, such as it is, is simple. It’s a simpler and less spicy version of pasta Puttanesca. The time spent in preparation is about 15, 20 minutes. A pot of this feeds my family of three. Tonight, I served it with sautéed zucchini on the side, because I felt a green side dish would be nice. But some nights, there is no side at all.
Set to boil a stockpot of water; you will be cooking a pound of pasta. I personally prefer a long, thin pasta, like spaghetti; the rest of my family seems to like a chunkier noodle, like cavatappi. It doesn’t really matter.
In a 2 1/2 quart pot (I use a small Dutch oven), put one half a tin of anchovies and some of the oil from it and put the heat on to medium. You want to heat the oil and let the anchovies begin to melt into the oil. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil that actually tastes good — not extra virgin, though. Once the oil is hot, add one medium onion, sliced thinly; cook the onion with the anchovies and oil. When the onion is translucent, add two fat cloves of garlic, also thinly sliced. (I think that’s the last “thinly sliced” of this blog post.) When the garlic has also reached a translucent state — this takes some stirring — add a tablespoon or two of tomato paste and maybe 1/2 cup of water. Stir to create a thin, pinkish sauce. By this point, the anchovy will be invisible in the sauce, but the pot will emanate a distinctly strong, almost meaty, salty, scent. You then add a tablespoon or two of capers — this is a matter of personal preference — and maybe 1/2 cup of good olives (even canned crappy ones are okay if that’s all you’ve got, but some nice Kalamatas are better), sliced up however you want them. Stir and let simmer on very low heat until your noodles are cooked. You could even just turn off the burner and put the pot aside, keeping it warm by covering the pot. Cook the noodles; dump on the sauce. You’re done. Unless you want to add some minced parsley, which, if you’ve got parsley around, is really really good on this. If you are totally on your game, the best topping for this is bread crumbs you’ve made yourself in a food processor with parsley added to the bowl. This makes for slightly flavored bread crumbs, which are somehow really good on top of these noodles. Because we are heathens and philistines, we’ve been known to add Parmesan to this as well, but it’s really unnecessary. It’s just that it seems like an extra topping is nice.
I have been known to make a batch of parsleyed bread crumbs in the food processor and just stow a jar of it in the fridge for a few days to use on top of whatever pasta things I make during the week. You’d think it would grow mold within 24 hours, but it never seems to; I’ve had a jar of these crumbs last very nicely for almost a month, tightly closed. But usually, to be honest, they get used up pretty quickly because they are so good on so many things.
The glory of Natalie’s Pasta is that you can make it with stuff you would keep around the kitchen. Except for the parsley — which is optional — everything here is something that can live in your pantry in a tin or a jar. Anchovies, capers, and olives. If you don’t have anchovies (heaven forfend) you could use some canned tuna instead (ideally the fancy stuff from a jar, packed in Italy, but seriously, even Bumble Bee in olive oil is fine, and I’ve done it, when truly pinched, with the really crappy store brand tuna packed in water, and it got gobbled up). If you wanted to add more stuff, for the sake of adding more stuff, you could crack a can of chickpeas or a can of cannellini beans and add those to the pot as well. But that’s more effort. My goal here is, Cheap dinner, reasonably fast. I suppose if you were the kind of person who didn’t keep onions or garlic around all the time, this wouldn’t be a great meal for you; nor will it work if you’re phobic when it comes to anchovies, capers, or olives. But I don’t know how someone who likes savory dishes could possibly dislike those things, which are basically the definition of savory.
The funny thing about Natalie’s Pasta is that it’s not fancy at all, really, though it uses, in small amounts, ingredients that we ugly American types think of as “fancy.” They’re just not run-of-the-mill items in American cooking. But they are, in European cooking, and since they store so well, there’s no reason to not keep them on hand. Even the tin of anchovies, once you’ve opened it: you’re only using half the tin, so you think, “What the hell will I do with the other half?” Well, I’ll tell you. You dump it into an empty jam jar you’ve washed clean, put it in the fridge, and keep it there until ten days go by, and you don’t know what the hell to make for dinner. Yank that jar from the fridge, and… you’ve already got dinner started. And how cool is that?