When I was little, I loved the nights when my mom would go out and my sister and I would be allowed our choice of a frozen TV dinner. Sometimes we would even be allowed to eat it in front of the TV, but mostly we had to sit at the kitchen table, napkins in our laps, milk at the top edge of the placemat, and eat it as we would a homemade meal. (In other words, even though the dessert was included in the foil tray, we had to save that for last.)
As I grew up, I continued to be fascinated by frozen food; it always looked so perfect on the package, and sometimes – as with Sara Lee chocolate cakes – the package delivered exactly what it promised. Mostly though, the food was merely a salty, less attractive and much smaller version than what I expected. Still, I’m not going to lie and say that I thought packaged food was inferior to homemade food; I often wished we had enough money to be able to buy ONLY frozen and canned food. (Because I’d learned about unit pricing, I knew that it cost more to buy prepared food than the ingredients. Thanks, MUJHS teachers!)
Over the years, as I learned how to cook, I became a little more discerning and less interested in buying pre-made food, but to be honest, the aisles of a foreign supermarket still thrill me. I think if you want to know how a nation eats at home, have a look at their frozen food selection. In Britain, there are whole aisles devoted to chips and roasted potatoes. In the States, I recall lots of pizza and fried chicken. On a trip to Italy years ago, The Author and I were giddy at finding a vacuum-pack swirling with the colours of the frozen squid, shrimp, and octopus it contained.
I love to see these packaged foods as gateways to various cultures, but nowadays it rarely occurs to me that I might buy them. I would rather make them myself. One of the reasons I love to cook is that I love to eat, but what I love to eat is food that tastes good. Otherwise, I think, what’s the point? To me, a dinner that is ho-hum is a dinner opportunity wasted. A cookie that is under-baked is a missed chance to have one that is caramelised perfectly. A frozen pizza is an occasion to eat hurriedly, with no joy, so you can quickly get to the next meal – the one that will be good.
The other thing I like about cooking is feeding people. I like to see people enjoying their food, and I like to share the pleasure of eating something that is prepared with care and that tastes utterly delicious. I want everyone to sit down and have at least one good meal a day, every day.
You can call me obsessive, but I find it surprising that not everyone feels the way I do. Even so, I do understand that not everyone wants to come home from working all day and then make a meal from scratch. It takes time to cook; it takes planning to buy all the ingredients beforehand; it takes skill to make the dinner. And then there’s the washing up.
As much as I would like to, I can’t go round to everyone’s house to make dinner. But at least I can share some recipes that are quick, easy, and don’t require a lot of planning. Armed with that, anyone can make a really good, healthy meal at any time.
And that will make me so happy!
Pasta with Tomato and Bacon (based on Pasta all’Amatriciana)
Every now and then I hear people who live alone say that they don’t want to take the time to make a meal just for themselves. I can understand that: the work-to-reward ratio seems a bit skewed. But this recipe changes that. It is very easy to make and very quick, requiring not much more time than boiling the pasta. You probably already have all the ingredients you need (typical recipes for Pasta all’Amatriciana call for guanciale, but this version does not suffer if you make it with bacon), it is amazingly good, and it is also infinitely adaptable: you can make it for one person, two people, 4 people, 8 people – I think you see where I’m going with this. Below I have given the measurements for one serving (but the pictures are for a family of five).
I have also noted that you can make your own tomato sauce for this (one of my current favourites is here). If you have freezer space, I recommend making a big batch in advance and then portioning and freezing it in freezer bags that you lay flat on the shelf (it saves space, and they defrost very quickly this way). Our freezer is very small, but when we had a large chest freezer, this planning ahead made many a dinner very speedy and delicious!
The first time you make this, I would suggest getting all the ingredients ready before-hand. As you become more familiar with the recipe, you may find you can juggle the various bits all in the 7-10 minutes it takes the pasta to boil.
- 1/2 large onion, sliced or diced
- 1 small garlic clove, crushed
- 2 rashers bacon, cut into small pieces or strips (if you are in the States, try to use Canadian bacon for this)
- olive oil
- 120ml (4 oz) tomato sauce (If you don’t have any homemade, you can use a bought variety you like or even just a tin of plum tomatoes – but note that the latter requires a little more time in the pan to get the flavours melded.)
- 85-100g (3-3.5 oz) spaghetti or bucatini (the amount depends on how hungry you are!)
- 20g (.75 oz) freshly grated pecorino cheese (or any hard cheese you like – parmesan, grana padano…)
- salt and pepper
First, put a pan of water on to boil for the pasta, and when it comes to a rolling boil, throw in a teaspoon of salt (this is for flavour and you really do need it!) and the pasta. Cook until almost done (about 1 minute less than the package instructions – it should still have a little too much “bite” to it).
While you’re waiting for the water to boil and then for the pasta to cook, put a splash of olive oil in a frying pan that will be large enough to later hold the pasta, and add the onion, garlic and bacon. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally. The bacon will release some of its fat (this is good – don’t throw it away!) and the onion will start to soften. Add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. After a few minutes, it should start to look thick and, er, sauce-like.
When the pasta is (under)done as stated above, drain it (reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water) and add the pasta to the sauce in the frying pan. Cook, stirring well, until the pasta has absorbed some of the sauce and it is cooked perfectly (i.e. the way you like it). You may find that the sauce boils away too quickly before the pasta is fully cooked, or that the whole dish seems dry – you can bring it back by adding some of the reserved cooking water and then continue cooking until done.
Season with salt (you shouldn’t need much, if any, depending on your bacon) and pepper, and served topped with the cheese. Sit down, with a napkin (and a glass of chianti on your placemat, if you’re so inclined), and fully enjoy what you have created!