Like many adults in a relationship, I struggle to feed myself when I am on my own. When my partner is away, it takes very little for me to go from the sort of person who will willingly cure an egg yolk to someone who eats tuna from the can. Starved of company, overwhelmed by the impossible task of both cooking and washing up, I resort to eating ryvitas standing over my kitchen sink to avoid having to hoover or wash a single plate.
The obvious answer is, of course, a takeaway. Piles of neatly arranged plastic containers filled with neon-red curries and steamy rice. Salads in bags, lonely lemon slices, tiny cups of chutney, Styrofoam cups of salty miso soup, paper bags filled with slightly worse-for-wear poppadoms. The brown cardboard boxes, containing falafels on wilted salad and bright pink pickles, or packed with creamy lentils and thin, spongy injera in a flimsy paper bag. Cold and congealed noodles to be revived in a hot milky ramen broth.
But a takeaway is not, cannot always be the answer. And there is something truly lovely about cooking for oneself. I recently discovered the Dinner for One podcast, which inspired me to make a little effort.
Growing up in a Italian household, I thought of pasta and rice as a dichotomy. It was either, or. Like vanilla or chocolate, chips or mash. Discovering Asian cuisines completely changed my relationship with rice, which is now the true staple of my diet: sticky short-grain with Japanese dishes, fluffy basmati alongside a stew, plumpy and chewy brown rice with my homemade chilli.
But when it comes to making a meal for myself, and myself only, I will always choose pasta, because making pasta is as ingrained in me as times tables and tying my shoelaces. I am always in search of the elusive perfect way to cook rice, and mess it up far more often than I care to admit, but I could cook pasta blind-folded and one-handed.
Puttanesca – literally, “made in the way of prostitutes”, hails from central Italy. Like most other things, its origin story is murky and contended by Rome and Naples. Some say it originated in brothels, where the convenience of a dish made entirely of cupboard ingredients led to the creation of the bright, punchy wonder we know today. At its heart, it’s a simple tomato sauce punctuated by pockets of savouriness in the forms of capers, olives and anchovies. As a child, this pasta would have been my worst nightmare. As a salt-craving adult, I am forever catching up with all the times I refused to eat this.
But this is no ordinary puttanesca – no, this is laced with a silly number of anchovies, melting away in the oil, but no olives are to be seen. Because I did not have olives at home. Because that’s what puttanesca is about – the ultimate cook-from-the-pantry recipe.
Other perfect occasions for a puttanesca would be:
- When you go out to a clever small-plate restaurants where dinner costs as much as week’s salary and you get home still hungry after a number of small plates featuring compound butters and dainty fermented vegetables.
- After a long trip, when you get home to find out that mould has overtaken the few things you left in the fridge, and then again when you wake up in the middle of the night, unsure as to what time it is.
- First time you cook for someone you have a crush on. It’s close to foolproof, impossibly simple and can (should?) be eaten straight from the pan.
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca (of sorts)
80-100g of spaghetti or any pasta
a little olive oil
a clove or two of garlic
a handful of capers in brine
a can of chopped tomatoes (I use Mutti)
Crush one or two cloves of garlic and fry in olive oil over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Take off the heat, add in the tomatoes (fresh would work too, as would passata) and return to the heat. Let the sauce bubble gently until thickened.
Boil the spaghetti in salted water, and once al dente drain and add to the sauce. Mix well, add chopped fresh parsley, eat straight from the pan (or not).