Almost-Empty-Pantry Pasta Sauce
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Surprise Dinner: Pasta all’Amatriciana

And on the subject of pasta sauces, I want to reflect on how aging has changed me. There are downsides to getting older—those aches in strange places, for example, from reaching under the couch for an errant toy or trying to grab that loose ball before it rolls into the street—but there are upsides, too. Never mind experience and all that. For me, getting older has had one major benefit: I don’t have to eat as much.

My metabolism has slowed, and that has meant freedom—freedom from having to obsess about meals, freedom from having to eat before going out, and freedom from always being hungry. An immediate upshot is that I can almost be satisfied from a simple bowl of pasta. And the other night, Santa Maria surprised me with a dish that she had first tasted, twenty-odd years ago, while eating in Rome with an Italian friend. She made all’Amatriciana sauce.

Santa Maria made a homespun, American version, substituting bacon for the guanciale (cured pork cheek) that is central to the sauce. She used a thick-sliced bacon from D’Artagnan, which we almost always have around the house, and the sauce was rich and delicious.

She found the recipe in a New York Times article that was published a few years ago. The article goes into great detail about the importance of the guanciale, and if that kind of allegiance to essential ingredients is meaningful to you, it lists places to buy it, too. I didn’t miss it myself. I was very happy to come home from work to a bowl of pure flavor, made with love. That’s the other thing about growing older: it’s easier to know what matters. 

Pasta all’Amatriciana 

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, sliced thin
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1/4 pound guanciale, in 1-inch slivers 1/4 -inch thick (or three slices of bacon, chopped)
  • One 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes, or to taste
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup grated aged pecorino cheese, more for serving (or Parmigiano-Reggiano) 
  • Pasta of choice

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet. Add onion and garlic, and sauté over medium heat until transparent. Add guanciale (or bacon) and sauté until barely beginning to brown.

Break up tomatoes and add. Cook about 15 minutes, crushing tomatoes with a spoon, until sauce has become somewhat concentrated and homogenized. Season with chili and salt and stir in 1 tablespoon cheese. Remove from heat.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add pasta and cook until al dente, about 9 minutes.

Serve the sauce over the pasta and enjoy.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

(Adapted from Michael Tucker)

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