In all the years that I've been writing this column, the two subjects that have consistently generated the most interest and comments are cooking for only one (or two) people and pasta.
And if those comments are any indication, when even seasoned cooks are faced with cooking for just one or two, the thing they find the most challenging is pasta.
Being creative with a single steak or chop, omelet, fish filet, or single serving of chicken is easy enough. But when it comes to noodles for one, too many of us seem to draw a creative blank, and stick to simple finishes that don't involve math or effort, like butter and cheese, garlic and olive oil, or a few spoonfuls of bottled marinara.
It's too bad, because nothing except maybe scrambled eggs is easier than a single serving of pasta. When I'm cooking just for myself, more often than not it's the very thing I'll make.
The recipes that follow require little more effort than butter and cheese, and the rewards for the little bit that they do require are well worth it.
Tips on pasta for one or two
Boiling pasta is a routine kitchen job for most of us, and regardless of how much pasta you're cooking, the same basic principles apply. But here are a couple of reminders and tricks that will help insure routine success with small batches.
Invest in a scale. It needn't be a fancy expensive model, but it'll make portioning pasta and other solid ingredients a breeze. Allow 3-4 ounces of pasta (regardless of shape) per serving.
Cut everything except the fat and liquid in a one-to-one ratio. For example, if the recipe calls for a medium onion, use just a fourth of one.
Fat is decreased exponentially: if you're cutting a recipe that serves four down to one serving, cut the fat by half or at most two-thirds, to serve two, by only a third.
The ratio for cutting liquid (broth, wine, water) depends on whether the liquid is reduced in the recipe. If it isn't, decrease it in a one-to-one ratio. If it will be reduced, decrease it in much the same proportion as the fat above.
Use the best pasta you can get. Imported Italian pasta is only a little more expensive than domestic store brands and is worth every penny.
You should always cook pasta in plenty of water to prevent it from being starchy and gummy, but for 1-2 servings, you can cut the amount of water to 2 quarts. If you're cooking strand pasta (like spaghetti) you may want to use 3 quarts of water if it's easier to submerge the noodles when you first add them.
Unless the sauce is very salty, always salt the cooking water to the salinity of sea water.
Once upon a time, Americans tended to overcook pasta, but now that "al dente" has been drilled into our heads, our tendency is to undercook it. Al dente means "firm to the bite," not "crunchy" or "pasty in the middle." Use the package directions as a rough guide and start testing for doneness at least a minute before the suggested time.
The kind of water you have will affect the cooking time: Pasta absorbs soft water more quickly than hard water.
Don't over-drain the pasta. In most cases, a little of the cooking liquid helps to distribute the sauce evenly. Use a colander (not a wire sieve), and let the pasta drain until the water is no longer running but not until the pasta is noticeably dry. As added insurance, take up about 1/4 cup of the cooking water just before you drain it so you can add it as needed.
Toss the pasta with the sauce the instant it's drained. Don't try to hold and reheat it later.
There's a common restaurant practice of finishing undercooked pasta in a pan with its sauce and some of its cooking liquid. They do it because they have to precook the pasta in order to serve you in a timely fashion, not because it's good practice.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
The first dish of pasta that I had in Italy and the one I most often make just for myself, spaghetti alla carbonara is one of the easiest of all to cook for one. Unhappily, whether it's being made for one or 20, it's also all too often misunderstood and badly done in our country.
You do not precook the eggs or scramble them in the soffritto (flavor base). If the eggs are at room temperature, the heat from the boiling-hot pasta will safely and completely cook them. And cream should never be brought anywhere near this dish. Ever. When the eggs have been done properly, the sauce will be creamy without help.
If you're still paranoid, use pasteurized eggs or for heaven's sake make something else.
For two servings, double everything except the butter and wine, increasing the butter by just 1 teaspoon (if it needs it) and the wine to 1/3 cup.
1 1/4-inch-thick slice pancetta or bacon, cut in Â¼-inch dice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
3-4 ounces spaghetti or thin spaghetti
1 medium to large egg at room temperature, outer shell well-washed
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus a little more for serving
1. Make a soffritto as follows: Saute pancetta in butter in heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat until golden. Add onion and saute until golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add wine, bring to a boil, and cook until almost evaporated. Add parsley and turn off heat.
2. Bring 2 quarts water to a boil in 3-quart pot. Stir in rounded tablespoon and spaghetti, stirring to separate strands. Cook until al dente (see notes). Meanwhile, heat serving bowl with hot water and wipe dry. Break egg into warm bowl and beat until well-mixed. Beat in cheese.
3. When spaghetti is almost ready, gently reheat soffritto over low heat; quickly drain pasta, reserving a spoonful or 2 of cooking water, and add both to eggs, tossing to coat well. Heat from pasta will safely cook egg and draw it onto surface of pasta. Add spoonful more cooking liquid if too thick. Quickly add soffritto, toss to mix, and enjoy at once.
Linguine with Shrimp with Garlic, Hot Pepper, and Olive Oil
This sauce is a nice little recipe to have in your arsenal for solo cooking. It can be tossed with noodles or served alone as an appetizer or even main dish, with crusty bread for sopping the juice. To serve two, or to enjoy it without linguine as a main dish, double everything except the oil and vermouth, increasing the oil by about a teaspoon and the vermouth by about half.
1/4 pound medium to large shrimp
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small to medium clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
Pinch (to taste) hot red pepper flakes
About 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
1/4 cup dry white vermouth
2 teaspoons minced flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh oregano
3-4 ounces Linguine
1. Peel shrimp and pat dry. Cut crosswise into 1/2-inch chunks. Put on 2 quarts water to boil in 3-quart pot over medium-high heat. Put oil, garlic, and hot pepper in small (8-inch), heavy-bottomed skillet or frying pan. Put pan over medium-high heat and saute until garlic is fragrant, about 5-10 seconds after sizzle begins. Add anchovy paste and stir until dissolved into oil.
2. Add shrimp and toss until just curled and pink, but still not quite firm and opaque, about 1 minute. Remove from pan and add vermouth, bring to boil, and cook, stirring often, until reduced by 2/3 and syrupy. Turn off heat.
3. When water is boiling, stir in rounded tablespoon salt and linguine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (see notes). When pasta is almost done, warm sauce over medium heat and return shrimp to pan. Season with salt if needed. Add herbs and, tossing constantly, let shrimp heat until completely done, about 1/2 minute. Turn off heat. Drain pasta, immediately toss with sauce, and enjoy.
Penne with Mushrooms, Butter, and Sage
Around this time of year when porcini mushrooms come into season in Parma, they're made into one of the best possible sauces for pasta simply by sauteing them in butter. Here, a few dried porcini ramp up the flavor of farmed mushrooms.
This is also lovely enriched with scallops. To make it, omit the cheese and substitute olive oil for the butter. Add 4 ounces bay scallops after the sauce is reheated in step 4 and toss until opaque and hot through, about a minute.
To serve 2, double everything except butter (or oil if adding scallops) and increase it by only 1 tablespoon.
4-5 large pieces dried porcini mushrooms
4 ounces brown (crimini or baby bella) mushrooms
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
3-4 small to medium fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
3-4 ounces penne pasta
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus a little more for serving
1. Put dried mushrooms in bowl and cover with 1/2 cup boiling water. Let soak 15 minutes and lift out mushrooms. Strain soaking liquid through paper towel and reserve. Wipe brown mushrooms clean with dry cloth or paper towel. Cut small ones into quarters, larger ones into chunks same as quarters. Put on 2 quarts water to boil in 3-quart pot over medium-high heat.
2. Put butter in 10-inch heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. When almost melted, add shallot and raise heat. Saute until translucent and colored pale gold, about 3 minutes. Add reconstituted and fresh mushrooms and toss to coat with butter. Add sage and salt and pepper to taste and cook, tossing often, until mushrooms are beginning to color. Add filtered liquid, bring to boil, and cook until liquid is evaporated, stirring often. Turn off heat.
3. When water is boiling, stir in rounded tablespoon salt and pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (see notes above). When pasta is almost done, gently reheat mushrooms over medium low heat. When pasta is ready, drain, immediately toss with mushrooms and cheese, and enjoy at once, adding more cheese to taste.
Pasta Shells with Oysters
Oysters are but rarely paired with pasta in Italy, but they're so plentiful in our area that it seems a shame not to take advantage of them. To logically pair them with pasta as an Italian might, I've combined them with the flavors that are usual for them in that country.
1/2 cup drained shucked oysters, preferably local, drained but liquor reserved
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon toasted breadcrumbs
1 medium clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
3-4 ounces small pasta shells
2 teaspoons minced flat leaf parsley
1. Pick over oysters for bits of shell. Put 2 quarts water on to boil in 3-quart pot. Put 1 teaspoon oil in heavy-bottomed 8-inch pan over medium-low heat. Add crumbs, tossing to coat, and lightly toast, stirring constantly. Remove crumbs from pan and set aside.
2. Add remaining oil and garlic to pan and toss until fragrant, about 20-30 seconds. Add oysters and toss until plump and firm, about 1 minute. Remove oysters with slotted spoon and set aside. Add wine and add reserved oyster liquor, bring to boil, and cook until wine and oyster liquor are reduced and thick. Turn off heat.
3. When water is boiling, stir in small handful salt and pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (see notes). When pasta is almost done, reheat sauce over medium-low heat. Cut oysters into 2-3 pieces, return to sauce with any accumulated liquor, and simmer until oysters are hot through and liquor is reduced. Add parsley, stir, and taste and add salt if needed. Turn off heat. When pasta is ready, immediately toss with sauce and toasted crumbs, and enjoy at once.
Macaroni and Cheese for Two
The Southern version of that quintessential comfort food, macaroni and cheese, is bound with milk and egg custard. It's easy to make for one, but this is one time when you want to have leftovers, so serves 2 as a main dish, 3 as a side.
Sometimes it's topped with crumbs, sometimes just a sprinkling of cheese. Sometimes, ham is mixed in to make a substantial supper casserole. I've given all these options below, so you can tailor it to suit yourself.
1/2 pound elbow macaroni
1 cup (about 4 ounces) coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar, plus 2 tablespoons
3/4 cup small-diced cooked ham, optional
Whole black pepper in a mill
2 large eggs
Pinch dry mustard
1 cup whole milk or 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup cream
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, optional, see step 3
1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs, optional, see step 3
1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Rub 1 quart casserole or 9-inch oval gratin dish with butter. Bring 2 quarts water to boil in 3 quart pot. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and macaroni. Cook until not quite al dente, roughly half time in package directions. Drain.
2. Put hot macaroni in casserole, add grated cheese and, if liked, ham, generously grind pepper over, and toss until mixed. Whisk together eggs, mustard, and large pinch salt in a mixing bowl and gradually whisk in milk. Pour evenly over macaroni. Sprinkle top with 2 tablespoons cheese.
3. To top with crumbs, melt butter in skillet over medium-low heat and turn off heat. Add crumbs and toss until butter is evenly absorbed. Sprinkle over top of macaroni.
4. Bake until cheese or crumbs are golden brown and center is firm, about 30 minutes.