When people find out that I develop and test recipes for a living, they often ask, “What do you like to cook?” Pizza’s a perennial favorite, though my answer often varies depending on my current project.
But if I’m really honest, the cooking that makes me happiest happens when I step away from recipes and improvise with whatever’s on hand. Not everyone’s that way — I recently interviewed a well-known food TV personality and cookbook author who told me she always follows a recipe, even her own. She invests a lot of time in perfecting her recipes, she explained, and following them to the letter allows her to re-create that taste experience every time.
That’s some sound logic, but I think it’s also good to free-range in the kitchen, at least occasionally, even if you’re a habitual recipe-follower. Especially if you’re a habitual recipe-follower.
Improvising in the kitchen is an exercise in being in the moment because you really have to focus on what’s happening in front you. You can experiment with using techniques learned from recipes in different ways. Sure, there’s the occasional dud, but you’ll learn something valuable from that, too. It’s a great confidence builder.
For me, ingredients are usually the inspiration, since I’m often looking to use up what I have on hand. This pasta toss started with some nice tomatoes that arrived in our produce box and a goodly amount of baby spinach left over from a recipe I’d made earlier in the week. Then I started eyeing the jar of emerald green pesto made with basil that also came in the produce box, plus a some Calabrian chile paste (a new favorite ingredient, thanks to Giada De Laurentiis … and in less than 20 minutes, it was a very good dinner.
So, ironically, I’m sharing a recipe here, but it’s really more a guide, a peek into what was thinking as I improvised. You really shouldn’t worry about measuring. A little more or less of these ingredients isn’t going to make a big difference.
Improvised Not-Too-Saucy Summer Pasta
8 ounces whole-grain pasta (pappardelle, penne, cavatappi, etc.)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (more if you like!)
2-3 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Kosher salt, to taste
½-1 teaspoon Calabrian chile paste or harissa (optional)
6-8 cups baby spinach
¼ cup pesto, homemade or jarred (optional)
1 ounce feta, goat or blue cheese
1 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente.
While the pasta cooks, heat oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook 30-60 seconds or just until it’s starting to turn golden. Carefully add the tomatoes (they’ll sizzle), a generous pinch of salt and chile paste, if you like a little heat. Cook 5 minutes or until the tomatoes are pretty well broken down. Depending on the variety and ripeness of the tomatoes, this may take more or less time, so focus on what’s happening in the pan rather than watching the clock. If the pan starts to look dry, ladle in a few tablespoons of pasta water, scraping up any browned bits (which add lots of flavor). Again, depending on the heat the pan, the variety of tomatoes, etc., you may need to do this several times. When the tomatoes have pretty well broken down, start adding the spinach a big handful at a time, adding more as the previous addition wilts down. This will look like a lot of spinach at first, but, ya know, it cooks down to very little. Stir in the pesto, if using.
By now, the pasta should be ready. Using tongs or a sieve, fish it out of the pot and drop it into the pan with the sauce, tossing to coat. If it looks dry, just add another few tablespoons of pasta water.
Divide the pasta evenly among 3-4 shallow bowls. Top evenly with cheeses.