Multitasking is key!
Anybody can pick out a recipe, head to the store and shop said recipe, then bring all the ingredients home and whip up a delicious dinner. However, because I like a challenge, this is rarely how I approach weeknight dinners. Instead, a fulfilling, successful weeknight dinner is all about the “clean out the fridge” approach. Of course, the loose ends of everybody’s refrigerator are going to look different than the next person’s, but there’s still a way that you can take what you have and turn it into a marvelous dinner. This, I know for certain. Skip the grocery store tonight and use up the ingredients that you already have.
Start With Pasta
Okay, so one of the prerequisites of a clean-out-the-kitchen pasta dinner is that you…have pasta. Because you’re a grown, capable adult, I’m going to assume that you’ve got some in your pantry. If you don’t, well maybe you should reevaluate your dry goods lifestyle. Cook your pasta to whatever level of doneness you prefer, making sure that the water is heavily salted. We might be using that starchy pasta water later, so make sure it’s at the top of its game.
Make an Oily, Herby, However-You-Like-It Sauce
This is where you can really reach far back into the depths of your fridge and start to clear out what you probably didn’t realize you still had. Assuming that all of your food items back there are, you know, still safe to eat, you should definitely not be afraid to incorporate them into your dinner. Chop up any fresh herbs (even if they’re starting to look a little dried out or wilty), hearty greens, onions, scallions, shallots, and/or minced garlic, and toss them in a large bowl with some oil (extra-virgin has never let me down), an acid (fresh lemon juice, fresh citrus zest, or some red wine vinegar), and plenty of salt (or anchovies, grated Parm, or capers, if you’re about that umami life). Have olives? You should put some of those suckers in, too. There are no hard and fast rules to what you do or don’t put into the sauce, and you’ll know that you’ve put in the right amount of each component when it is irresistibly delicious. Have a taste. Does it need more salt? Does it need some bright acidity? Listen to your kitchen sink sauce and ask it what it needs.
Make a Crunchy Topping
Because we’re trying to use up as much of what we already have, we should probably go ahead and make some sort of crunchy topping to finish off our beautiful pasta dinner. If you have panko breadcrumbs, give them a quick toast in some hot oil or butter in a skillet, let them dry on a paper towel, and season them with citrus zest, salt, and pepper. If you have a hunk of stale bread, blitz it into crumbs using your food processor and then proceed the same way. You can also toast a small handful of any nuts that you might have hiding back there, then chop them up into perfect sprinkling size. Want to add something with a little crackle, but with some sauciness too? A frizzle-edged fried egg never hurt anybody, I promise.
Put it All Together
Okay, your pasta is cooked and the base of your sauce is delightful and your topping is as crunchy as it’ll ever be. Go ahead and add your hot pasta to the large bowl containing your saucey fixins and toss everything together until all the components are nice and friendly with one another. If things seem a little dry or sticky, add ¼ cup or so of that starchy pasta water to finish off the dish with a nice, glossy sauce. Throwing a pat of butter into the mix is also incredibly effective at this point. Sprinkle your Crunchy Topping of Choice, grate some Parmesan over this bad boy (because cheese is obviously a crucial finish), and maybe hit it with another squeeze of fresh lemon juice for good measure. Congrats champ–your dinner is perfect, and your fridge is way less of a nightmare.