When it comes to cooking on a day-to-day basis, there are two real categories of food: the things that you make when you’re up to it, and the things that you make when aren’t.
The later is a special, if unglamorous, group. They are the meals that comfort you when you can’t stand the thought of packaged food, don’t want to go out, and are too broke to order in; when you want something honest and uncomplicated and good. What this means varies from person to person, but never requires dirtying a lot of dishes or spending too much time. You might make salads or fried rice, soup or grilled sandwiches, stir fries or omelettes or pasta.
Every once in a while one of these dishes is nice enough that you’d consider serving it to somebody you might like to impress. When you get a call out of the blue from an attractive acquaintance inquiring about dinner at 6:30 in the evening, it’s nice to have the something in the house that will do.
This has been one of my most foolproof standbys. Except for vegans and true vegetarians, it’s almost universally loved. It’s filling and easy and simple and cheap, and except for the carbs, it’s very healthy: oily fish (yes, anchovies) and broccoli are both fantastic for you, and a little olive oil and hard cheese never hurt anybody. In fact, you can even make it with whole-wheat pasta. I have, and none were the wiser.
Pasta with Broccoli and Anchovies
For 4-6 people, depending on voracity.*
(The whole thing will take about half an hour, 45 minutes if you’re deliberate or distracted.)
- Fill your pot most of the way up with water, cover it and set it over high heat to boil.
- While the water boils, cut up your broccoli. Cut off the florets into pieces of about the same size; keep them about an inch and a half long, if you can. When all the florets are cut off, use your knife or a vegetable peeler to get the skin and leftover branches off the broccoli stalks, cut off the woody end slice them diagonally into pieces about half an inch thick.
- Set your broccoli aside and get to work on the garlic and anchovies. You want 5 or so anchovy fillets and an equal amount of garlic (or, I do. But I like this pasta extremely flavorful – if you’re timid, you can go with less). Smash the whole garlic cloves with the side of your knife; this loosens the skin so you can pull it off. Pile up the garlic and anchovy fillets and chop them a lot, until what you have resembles a brownish paste with specks of garlic in it. I promise, this is will be delicious.
- Grate your cheese. If you have a friend around, this is the perfect task to outsource. I grate my own cheese approximately 3% of the times I need cheese grated. You will have to judge by eye what looks like enough; figure on two or three handfuls to get mixed in, plus some extra for sprinkling.
- By now your pasta water will be nearing the boil. On another burner, heat several big glugs of olive oil (1/4 cup-ish, 3-4 tablespoons) in whatever skillet you’re using, over a low-ish medium flame.****
- When the pasta water is at a rolling boil, add a handful of salt (Yes, I mean it. A handful.) to the water and dump in your pasta. The first time you make this recipe, take a gander at how long the package says the pasta should cook, and set a timer for T-4 minutes. So if the pasta is supposed to cook for 12 minutes, set yourself a timer for 8. Once you’ve done it a few times, it’ll become natural. Give the pasta few good stirs as it cooks.
- When the oil in the skillet slightly shimmery on top, (probably right after you dump in the pasta) add the garlic-and-anchovy paste, and the crushed red pepper flake. This must be done according to taste. I like one really big pinch or two sort of smaller ones – maybe 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon? If you like it spicier, add more. Cook gently, stirring occasionally. Try not to let the garlic brown (you can turn down the heat a bit if needed).
- When the timer goes off, dump the broccoli right into the pot with the pasta and give it a stir. Continue cooking until the pasta is al dente and the broccoli tender but (with any luck) not falling apart.
- Using your mug, scoop out a big (1/2 cup) of pasta-cooking water from the pot and set aside. Set your colander in the sink and drain the pasta and broccoli. If you’ve got the huge pan, dump the colander right in there with the garlic and anchovies. If not, put it right back into the pot it cooked in and dump the garlic and anchovies and oil on top of that.
- Add the grated cheesein small handfulls, stirring vigorously the whole time. Add some of the reserved pasta water too, so that instead of being dry, the pasta has a sort of glistening, lightly sauced look. Remember to save some of the cheese for sprinkling, and serve (with wine, or beer or cider or water). If you’re alone, all you need is a fork.
* This dish also scales beautifully. Half a pound of pasta and a smaller head of broccoli, lighter on the anchovy and garlic, and the exact same procedure feeds two. If you’ve got big enough pots and pans, you can double it up and feed 8. Simple.
** You want it as green as you can find it, with tight little bundles of florets. Nothing wobbly or soft or yellow. Also, check out the stem and see if it’s hard and woody – that’s a bad sign.
*** I like Pecorino a lot, but I’ve used Asiago and Piave, and of course good old Parmesan. Get something nice, though – a whole piece of cheese, and not one that comes in printed shrink wrap, one that was recently cut off a big wheel. Also, remember that not all graters are the same; micro-plane graters create light, fluffy piles. If you’re using something with bigger holes, you won’t need as big a volume of grated cheese.
**** God help you if you’re using an electric stove. I recommend picking up the pan a lot to regulate heat. Or moving to a place with a gas stove.
The sentiments expressed in this post were earlier expressed by the wonderful cook and author Laurie Colwin. Read her books!