When opening the refrigerator reveals little more than eggs, milk and butter, the impulse most often is to order take-out. A well-stocked pantry, however, is enough to turn “nothing” into a full-fledged meal, as Colu Henry knows well. Henry, former director of public relations and director of special projects at Bon Appetit magazine, sparked a weeknight dinner revolution with her pasta dishes cobbled together from pantry staples, and shared on Instagram with the tag #backpocketpasta. Now immortalized in Back Pocket Pasta, Henry’s easy riffs and improvisations are available (and replicable) for the masses.
Back Pocket Pasta is not filled with hard-and-fast recipes, nor are any of the dishes particularly revelatory. Henry’s formulas plant seeds of inspiration and give the go-ahead, nudging home cooks to work with whatever they have laying around.
The simplest — yet most indulgently rich — recipe in the book comes courtesy of Carla Lalli Music, food director at Bon Appetit magazine. Composed of little more than an emulsion of butter and Parmesan cheese, tossed with al dente pasta, Back Pocket Pasta‘s Fusilli Alfredo is the ultimate in empty-fridge cooking — and yet it tastes like anything but a last resort.
3/4 pound fusilli pasta
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into a few pieces
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
Cook’s Note: When grating the Parmesan cheese, use the smallest holes on a box grater [rather than a Microplane], as the Microplane can make the cheese too fluffy [which becomes] gloppy when it melts, instead of “coat-y.” Alternatively, you can blitz it in a food processor until the cheese forms very small beads.
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and return to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to package directions. Reserving 1 1/2 cups of the pasta cooking liquid, drain the pasta and let sit in a colander while you prepare the sauce.
2. Return the pasta pot to medium heat and add the pasta cooking liquid. When it comes to a simmer, gradually whisk the butter into the pasta water, one piece at a time, waiting until once piece melts before adding another. Once you’ve added all of the butter, the sauce should look creamy and glossy, not greasy and broken. (It will seem pretty thin, and you might worry that it is too loose, but fear not.)
3. Gradually whisk in the Parmesan, adding it by the handful and making sure it has melted before adding more. Return the pasta to the pot and toss until all the noodles are coated and the sauce has thickened somewhat.
4. Plate in bowls topped with a few grinds of black pepper and more Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Buy the Book
This recipe appears in Back Pocket Pasta, by Colu Henry, published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Buy Now: $18