Since I’ve finished university about a month ago, I’ve been enjoying my free time. Finally no more essays, reflection papers, presentations, readings… But my problem is that now I am indulging in pleasant days of laziness and embracing my inner sloth. Although I deserve to relax and for once not worry about deadlines and going to class, I think I need to be more productive (although reading cookbooks, food blogs and food photography tips have been quite productive activities during my lazy day). But laziness can also bring good things, like my Red Onion and Basil Pasta.
The other day I was so lazy, I didn’t even want to go out to do groceries, and the supermarket is only a seven minute walk from here. I know, that’s disgraceful, but sometimes I just have those days where I’m alone for dinner, I’m not in the mood for something fancy and I want to work with the ingredients I have in the house (and sometimes end up having breakfast for dinner, which I love). I was hoping to find some super ingredient in the back of my fridge, but all that was there were a couple of red onions, some tomato passata, jam, butter, milk and orange/mango juice. Ok, so, what to cook? As any student, or any Italian, when I want to eat something filling and easy to make I think of pasta. My go-to pasta dish is simple pasta with tomato sauce with some gently fried garlic and chili, and that was exactly what I fancied that night: garlicky tomato pasta with loads of chili. But that evening, I had no garlic in the house. No problem, I live in a building full of friendly students, surely someone had garlic for me. So I went to pick up some garlic after posting my request on our student housing facebook page. But when I returned to my apartment and opened the garlic head, the cloves were brown, dry and powdery.
Ok, so no garlic. Gosh I hate cooking without garlic, and what I hated even more was that I was too lazy to buy one of the most essential ingredients for my kitchen. But oh well, I got over my initial panic and decided to work with what I had in the fridge. I took my lonely red onion and sliced it. Took some basil and chopped it into thin strips. Flaked a red chili. Poured some tomato sauce. What I noticed was that by slow cooking the red onion slices with the basil in some olive oil, they became sweet, slightly caramelized and almost garlicky. The sauce came out creamy and smooth by adding some starchy water from the pot where the pasta was cooking. This is a trick I learnt by watching the Italian version of Ready Steady Cook, called La Prova del Cuoco. When I was little I always used to watch this show with my mum, and sometimes this big Italian chef called Renato would come on the show. He always added some water from the pasta to the sauce, drained the pasta a minute before it was ready and added it to the sauce to finish it off, so the pasta would soak up the flavour of the sauce. This gave extra flavour to the actual pasta that absorbed the sauce, and made the sauce creamier and fuller from the starch in the pasta water. I still do this every time I cook pasta, I think it’s an essential step to complete the dish.
So in the end, despite my laziness and my lack of garlic, I managed to cook a decent plate of pasta: smooth and slightly spicy tomato sauce, with almost caramelized onions and subtle basil flavour. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Although some garlic would have been nice.
This recipe is for one person, but can easily be adjusted for more servings*
Ingredients (for 1 serving)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, sliced
4-5 basil leaves, chopped into strips
1 small dried red chili
2 to 3 tbsp of tomato sauce (passata), depending on how saucy you like your pasta
100g of short pasta (penne or rigatoni are my favourite)
Coarse salt (for pasta water)
Cook the pasta according to cooking instructions and time on the package. Do salt the water properly only once the water is boiling (otherwise it will take longer to reach the boiling point). Sometimes people are scared of putting too much salt in their water and end up putting way too tittle, which makes that pasta taste a bit bland. I usually add about 10 grams of coarse salt per liter of water. It might seem a lot, but if you salt the water properly the pasta will have more flavour and you won’t need to add any salt to your sauce (which I never do by the way).
For the sauce, heat the oil on low to medium heat in a medium size pan. When hot, add the sliced onion and gently cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until the onions are soft but not brown. Flake the chili into the sauce and add the basil strips. Fry gently for 2 minutes and add the tomato sauce. Once the sauce is gently bubbling away, add a couple of tablespoons from the pasta water to the sauce and mix. Once absorbed, add another couple of tablespoons.
Once the pasta is ready, drain it very quickly and add immediately to the sauce. You want to have some of the cooking water still draining from the pasta into the sauce. What I do is, once most of the water has been drained, I put the colander with the pasta over the empty pot where it was cooking. This way I collect the remaining starchy water that I then add to the sauce with the pasta. Turn the heat up to high and mix the pasta with the sauce until incorporated and it looks creamy. Serve with a little pinch of ground black pepper, but not too much otherwise it will overpower the delicate flavour of the basil.
* if you are preparing this dish for 4 people use 2 tbsp of olive oil, 3 small red onions, about 10 leaves of basil, 2 chilis, 8-12 tbsp of tomato sauce and 400g of pasta.