The cookbook author, pasta expert and newest New York Times cooking contributor Colu Henry shares her pantry staples, cooking tricks, entertaining secrets—and a recipe from her latest book, “Back Pocket Pasta.”
This is one short story you’ll want to come back to again and again—and share!
FAVORITE PASTA BRAND
Pastificio Di Martino made in Gragnano! Founded by owner Giuseppe di Martino’s family in 1912, they make artisan pasta at an accessible price point. Pastificio di Martino also carries an incredible variety of shapes and sizes. 120 to be exact! My favorite is the Fusilli Lunghi.
GO-TO OLIVE OIL
California Olive Ranch makes the best everyday cooking oil. It’s well priced and available everywhere! Lots of well-respected chefs from John Adler to Ashley Christensen give it their seal of approval too.
POT OR PAN YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
Lately I’ve been really putting my 12-inch Lodge cast iron pan to work. I’ve had it forever, so it’s very well-seasoned and acts almost like a plancha. I brought it on vacation to Nova Scotia this summer and used nothing else. It provides a great sear for meat or fish and distributes heat well for even cooking. You can also use it on any surface from gas to grill to open fire.
BOTTLE OF WINE YOU WOULD HAPPILY DRINK WITH MOST PASTA MEALS
Any producer of Pelaverga (there are only about 5-10 people that make it)! It’s a rare varietal grown right outside Barolo, so you’re getting a similar style wine for a quarter of the price. They are high acid, making them very food friendly. Serve chilled!
WHY DO WE HAVE TO RESERVE PASTA WATER WHEN COOKING?
I generally finish my pasta on the stove in its sauce, so reserving pasta water is key to bringing it together. I add it as need at the end. The starchy, salty liquid (which I call gold!) emulsifies the sauce and helps create a silky, glossy finish.
YOUR DINNER SOUNDTRACK
I let Spotify do all the work these days. I love their Daily Mixes. Right now, I’ve got a lot of Margo Guryan, Tim Buckley and Love happening. I’m having a late ‘60s moment, and I’m into it.
I love Danica Design candles out of Maine. They are unscented and are a blend of beeswax and other waxes. They come in an amazing selection of colors, and they have them for sale at my favorite flower shop in Hudson called Flowerkraut.
BEST PRESENT FOR SOMEONE WHO HAS COOKED YOU A MEAL
Dessert! It also takes something off their plate (no pun intended). It can be something as straightforward as the ripest, sweetest figs or peaches (or other in season fruit) and whipping cream, or an assortment of chocolate bars to pass around the table. I’m currently in love with Chequessett Chocolates made right on Cape Cod. The simpler, the better in my opinion.
DO YOU TWIRL YOUR PASTA?
I actually grew up twirling it with a spoon! Learning how to do it was a real accomplishment at the time. But, I learned later on that it’s more of an Italian-American thing! Sometimes I’ll grab a spoon and twirl away, but it’s more for nostalgic reasons these days.
HOW DO YOU APERITIVO?
I generally will offer guests a spritz upon arrival before moving on to wine. I also will put out a big board of items such as cured meats, cheeses, and olives. If I really feel like showing off, I might also put out some fennel and radicchio alongside a bagna-cauda-type dressing to dredge them through. Anchovies on buttered toast are also a nice way to start off the evening.
4 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice (see Cook’s Note)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 pound mezze rigatoni
1 pound cherry or baby Sun Gold tomatoes, halved (about 3 cups)
Freshly ground black pepper
5 ounces watercress, roughly chopped
Grated Pecorino Romano cheese, for serving
In the summer, I eat a tomato sandwich nearly every day. On some days it’s simply toasted bread with mayonnaise and thickly cut tomatoes seasoned with big chunks of flaky maldon salt and a few turns of fresh pepper. On others, Chad will fry up some bacon from a local farm in Kinderhook, New York, then stack the crispy slices atop tomatoes and bitter greens or farm-fresh lettuce for a sandwich that screams summer. I use watercress for this recipe because it wilts well but still maintains great crunch and texture. It also adds a nice savory note, balancing the sweetness of the tomatoes and the saltiness of the bacon.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of the salt and return to a rolling boil.
- While the water comes to a boil, prepare the sauce: Place the bacon and olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Cook until the bacon is scrip, stirring occasionally to make sure it does not burn, about 8 minutes. Remove the bacon and set aside. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from the pan.
- Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente according to package directions.
- Add the tomatoes to the skillet and cook over medium heat, coating them in the bacon fat. Season with salt and pepper. As the moisture from the tomatoes releases and deglazes the pan, scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Sauté the tomatoes until they are tender and almost melt, about 5 minutes more. Add half of the bacon to the skillet and toss together to combine.
- Increase the heat to medium-high. Add the pasta directly to the skillet and toss to coat. Add the watercress and 1/2 cup pasta water and toss until the watercress wilts, adding 1/4 cup more of pasta water (up to 1 cup), as needed to loosen up the sauce.
- Plate in bowls, season with salt and pepper, and top with the remaining bacon. Pass the grated Pecorino Romano at the table.
COOK’S NOTE: This recipe calls for slab bacon, which is primarily cut from the belly and does not come pre-sliced. This allows you to get a thicker dice than you would from grocery-store bacon, and gives you a texture that stands up to the toothsome pasta.
See more recipes in “Back Pocket Pasta,” ($28, amazon.com).
And follow her on Instagram @coluhenry