Back Pocket Pasta is a very simple concept: you already have everything you need to make a delicious pasta dinner if you have a well-stocked pantry and an understanding of the flavors you like. Colu Henry understands the importance of making the most of what you have, and believes you know more than you give yourself credit for in the kitchen.
The cookbook itself is beautiful -- Colu Henry's style is embedded into every corner of it, from the deep navy cover to the foil copper font. I love that the cover is hardcover, but not laminated. It feels very old school to me, and once you peek inside, well. That's where the real romance begins.
The full-size, vibrantly colored photographs of not only the pasta dishes, but of Colu's life in New York City, Hudson, and abroad in Italy are a visual treat. There are cheese pulls on cheese pulls, beautiful farmer's markets, and ingredients piled on top of each other, waiting to be opened.
It would be such a disservice to the book not to mention both the helpful Back Pocket Pantry guide in the back, as well as Talia's Guide to Weeknight Drinking. Talia Baiocchi is the Editor-in-Chief of PUNCH, which covers culture and cocktails. This section is a inspired pairing list for almost every recipe here, and the Back Pocket Wine selection is equally enlightening. So now the fun begins.
A field guide to pasta in a pinch, I cooked from Back Pocket Pasta for five days and I didn't buy special ingredients, either. My pantry is filled to the brim, so I molded the recipes to fit my needs and tastes, which is exactly how BPP is meant to be used.
I did not take pictures of all of the recipes, for various reasons like my tiny corner apartment doesn't have great natural light or I was too hungry and forgot to snap a photo before diving in. Oops.
Sunday: Baked Ziti with Crème Fraiche & Spinach
I couldn't not make a version of Sunday sauce. After all, my live-in boyfriend (Scott -- the recipe tester of this challenge) is Italian and Irish, and is best known for making his Sunday sauce in his underwear. Fully dressed, I undertook the Sunday sauce challenge.
As far as substitutions go, the recipe called for a 50/50 mixture of crème fraiche and ricotta. However, in my refrigerator was a tub of plain Greek yogurt staring at me so in went some plain, tart Chobani alongside the ricotta. I also used rigatoni instead of ziti because said boyfriend is an adamant rigatoni fan.
The sauce comes together quickly, as far as Sunday sauces go, in about 20 minutes give or take. The real trick here is to add the spinach to the sauce in the last possible seconds so it wilts and gains a beautiful vibrant green color, without cooking it down to reduce the spinach flavor.
Scott was licking the sauce spoon as soon as the dish hit the oven, which I considered a good sign. And when it came out, wow. I could eat this dish every day for the rest of my life. It was cheesy and meaty, without being overwhelmingly heavy, everything a pasta bake should be. The spinach tasted so fresh (shout out to Johnson's Backyard Garden in Austin), despite being surrounded by Italian sausage and ricotta.
The leftovers were almost even better than the real thing, though full disclosure, I eat all pasta leftovers cold. Because that's just how it goes. I'll be making this again. Probably on Sunday.
Tuesday: Fusilli Alfredo
After working through leftovers on Monday, Tuesday's dinner was ready for a new recipe. I came home from yoga and wanted something simple. What could be more simple (and rewarding) than a five-ingredient recipe, including salt and pepper?
I've tried my hand at Alfredo sauces before, and they never really tasted ... complete. This Alfredo, which Henry notes is a true Alfredo without cream, milk, or flour, was the most delicious thing I've ever made in a single pot before. The combination of the pasta water with the butter, added slowly in pieces until fully mixed, made a sauce that coated the noodles so entirely, it was almost like a sheen of pure utter and cheese.
I swapped out pappardelle for fusilli because I had it in the pantry, though the Fusilli Jerry might be my favorite Seinfeld episode. Scott took one forkful of this, closed his eyes, and didn't speak, just made Mmm sounds for a full minute. Leaving him speechless was pretty impressive.
Wednesday: Smoky Garganelli alla Vodka
Vodka sauces have to be in my top three favorite pasta sauces, so when I spotted this recipe, I knew I'd be using that bottle of Svedka in my freezer. This recipe, with the same basic pantry ingredients as the others, became something entirely special. I swapped the garganelli for bucatini because my pantry is overflowing with bucatini since it was on sale (shop smarter, not harder, y'all).
I had a doubter in my presence: Scott did not understand the concept of a vodka sauce in which the vodka did not taste bitter. Colu Henry (and my decent ability to follow directions) proved him wrong entirely.
The dish came together seamlessly, and when the cream was added, he leaned his face right into the steamy skillet, and said, Wow, that smells so good, can we eat it now?
I plated the pasta in bowls, twirled the portions like my Mommom taught me, added a generous helping of Parmesan, and had the best Wednesday night dinner I've had in a long, long time. The vodka adds a depth to the lightly creamy sauce that is otherwise absent in red sauces without it. Drink with a very large glass of red wine. I did, and it felt so luxurious for a mid-week 15-minute dinner.
Thursday: Creamy Zucchini & Sausage
I had some zucchini in the back of my refrigerator looking at me very sadly by the time Thursday rolled around, so I did what anyone does when they're doing a cookbook challenge. I went to the Index and found Zucchini at the bottom and you know what, thank God I did. I swapped the campanelle for rigatoni again because it was what I had on hand.
I'd never scooped zucchini before, and normally just slice and dice it for a green addition to pasta, but there is no reason I should ever skip the scooping step again. The pulp cooks down with the tomatoes and the garlic so beautifully, it lends a subtle sweetness to the sauce that I didn't even realize zucchini could add to dishes.
I'll admit, getting the timing right on this recipe was a little harder than the rest given the fact I live in a 400-square-foot apartment with only one full-size burner, and three baby-size burners. However, the pasta cooked wonderfully alongside the sauce, and the outside of the zucchini had so much color from being tossed in the boiling water.
Scott took one bite of the pasta directly from the skillet and said,
"These are like flavors you would get in an Italian restaurant. People always think Italian cooking is like heavy red sauce and marinara, but it's so much more and it's about using fresh flavors like this."
I think that's the highest compliment I've ever received from him when it comes to a pasta dish. He said I could quote him on that. Recipe: Success.
Saturday: Pasta with Bacon, Peas, & Leeks
It was SXSW week, after all, so I made the fifth and final recipe of the challenge after seeing Garth Brooks for free (thanks, Garth!) and losing my voice at karaoke from singing along. I had bacon, frozen peas, and leeks that were on the verge in my vegetable drawer and while I was drunkenly craving a Whataburger Honey Chicken Biscuit, I knew what I had to do.
I followed the recipe very haphazardly, and luckily, there isn't much you can mess up when it comes to the combination of leeks, bacon, and cheese. I bravely fired up the stove and set out chopping the leeks at 2:30 a.m. because what else is pasta if it isn't the best drunken food out there?
As soon as I said it was ready, Scott was next to me, already shoveling the steaming pasta into his mouth. Oh my God, best drunk food ever, he said. I concur. We both ate two full bowls and fell asleep, with not a sign of a hangover the next morning.
He also ate it for breakfast, and second breakfast, and lunch. I didn't even get to have a leftover bowl.
To put it simply, Back Pocket Pasta knows you're a better cook than you think you are. And while there are a few wrong ways to cook pasta, Colu Henry believes in your instinct and encourages you to follow it. I think it'd be hard to mess up any of these recipes atrociously, and because it's pasta, they make a full meal that can be accompanied with a green side salad and garlic bread for a complete plate.
The flavors are kid-friendly in most cases, and you can always toss vegetables into any dish with a quick wilt to brighten it up. I hardly substituted anything, with the exception of pasta shapes, through the week which is a testament to the simplicity Henry's ingredient lists.
If I did have to substitute something, there was an easy replacement in my pantry or refrigerator. Her useful tips throughout the cookbook, such as buying hot Italian sausages and removing the casings because they're already seasoned so well, save time in the long run.
Back Pocket Pasta belongs in your cookbook collection, plain and simple. You'll learn that you already know so much about pasta, but Colu Henry's recipes and tips will inspire you to branch out even more without a hiccup.
This post was originally published in March 2017.
Learn More: Making the Most of What You Have on Hand: Colu Henry's Back Pocket Pasta