I’m always on the hunt for fast pasta recipes, especially the ones that have sauce and pasta cooked and ready at the same time.

In that subset, there are dishes that call for just one or two staples that I’m likely to have on hand. These are the recipes for nights when I’m running late, haven’t had time to shop, and I’m starved. The staples? Garlic, good olive oil, lemon, pancetta, and parsley. Desperation can inspire a very happy meal.

Good garlic is key, the most important element in any pasta sauce. Be careful to choose garlic heads that are hard and firm. Avoid using bruised cloves because they have an off taste. Discard any sprouts that may appear in the garlic clove; they’re more fibrous than the surrounding flesh and don’t break down easily.

Start by cooking a few whole, peeled, garlic cloves in olive oil or rendered pancetta fat over low heat; the whole cloves are less likely to burn than slivers of garlic. These infuse the fat with a gentle garlic flavor. Some cooks remove the garlic after this step to ensure that it doesn’t overcook and turn bitter, creating an off-tasting sauce.

The next step is to whisk in a little pasta water. It’s loaded with starch that both thickens and emulsifies the sauce and gives it a lush sheen. Toss the pasta into the pan, along with the crisped pancetta, lemon zest, chopped parsley and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.

The arguments over the benefits of dried pasta versus packaged fresh pasta persist, and I confess to being a fan of the fresh, especially for recipes such as this. Take local pasta makers, Dumpling and Strand. Their fresh egg Mafaldine, a long ruffled noodle, cooks in just a couple of minutes. Because it’s so tender, it may simply be added to the pan of garlic oil with just enough water to barely cover. In this way, the fresh pasta and sauce simmer together and are ready in no time: one pan, no fuss.

You can expand this dish by tossing in leftover roasted vegetables, sautéed mushrooms, dark greens, chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, drained chickpeas, chopped olives, or whatever looks good and you have on hand. A little shredded cheese is always nice.

This has become one of our family’s favorite recipes, conjured from near-thin air — fresh, bright, ready in minutes and ready to please.


Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.