We buy cookbooks for all sorts of reasons — as gifts, to learn techniques, explore different cuisines — but I’m finding, more and more, that what home cooks are really looking for is for a cookbook to make weeknight cooking easier. I’m not sure there is a person who exists that wants to buy a cartload of pricy ingredients and then slave away in the kitchen when all they want is to get a delicious meal on the table without any hassle. I think we all want to eat better! What I want is to be able to go to my pantry and pull out a few ingredients that will end up as a beautiful, nourishing meal for my family.
This is where Colu Henry‘s Back Pocket Pasta** Cookbook enters in. Her book takes the humblest of ingredient — dried pasta — and builds simple, yet effortlessly elegant meals out of it. Think: stylish comfort food. We’re no strangers to pasta dinners here but I live with two people who think that oven-roasted cherry tomatoes and spaghetti is the only pasta meal going (well, that, and if you ask the small one, she’ll probably mention something about “Annie’s” too). It’s this meal that’s my go-to when I have nothing else at my fingertips, so it is with Back Pocket Pasta I am happy to expand our pasta repertoire, and I found that what Henry offers is an effortless way to achieve this goal.
In the opening section, Here’s How it Goes, she quickly outlines ingredients, tools/kitchen set up, and how to properly cook the pasta (salted water, cook to al dente — that’s key, save the pasta water, have the sauce ready, and to toss your pasta in the sauce). These steps sound like a given but, to be honest, the only step I ever observed was the “cook to al dente” one and now that I’ve incorporated the others my pasta has gone from okay to restaurant-quality. Who knew that just a few simple steps could have such a marked difference on the outcome of a pasta dish? Even my four-year-old noticed! And it is with these basic tenets that the recipes follow: pulling together a few ingredients with a specific pasta shape to quickly come up with a meal that’s delicious and comforting.
The recipes follow in four main sections — Mama’s, Powers Street, Brooklyn, Hudson & The Valley, and Travels Near & Far. Her recipes rely on using dried pasta, which is easy to source and very shelf-stable so that you’re always prepared. From there you take fresh ingredients or pantry staples (outlined at the end of the book in the section Stocking Up) and you’ve got yourself a meal within about an hour. Some of the recipes include meat, poultry or fish but there’s lots of plant-based love here too. Out of the 10 recipes I’ve tried already most can be made vegan simply by omitting the cheese or dairy and there’s no reason why if you observe a gluten free diet that you couldn’t use your favourite gluten free pasta in place of the regular kind. This is the kind of book Henry has written — one where you can easily mold a dish to your preferences. It’s about finding ease in the kitchen when you need it.
When I made her recipe for Baked Ziti with Crème Fraiche and Spinach, I just omitted the Italian sausage since we’re a family of vegetarians. It was that simple and the dish turned out so tasty! It always appeared to me that any baked pasta recipe seems involved but even with this recipe it’s on the table within an hour! If that sounds like a long time, there are recipes that can be ready in less than twenty — take her recipe for Two-Step Tortellini en Brodo. Any type of tortellini paired with any type of stock and there’s dinner! I always keep fresh tortellini frozen for quick use and my daughter loved this “noodle soup,” as she put it.
Back Pocket Pasta is all about flavour — less is more it. When my husband and I first met over 17 years ago he was always trying to get me to make pasta with Alfredo sauce, but I thought it was too fussy — anything with a roux always seems like more effort. Fast forward those years and you’ve got Carla Lalli Music’s recipe for Fusilli Alfredo included in Henry’s book. Lalli Music says, “Whoever you make this for will know instantly that you love them very much” and (without a word of a lie) when I served this to my husband, he took one bite and said, “You must really love me!” What I loved about this recipe is that it doesn’t contain cream, milk, or flour yet you still end up with the most luxuriously creamy alfredo sauce (as a side convo I didn’t have any fusilli on hand, so I used strozzapreti, I felt no stress about not having the exact ingredients on hand and no need to make a trip to the store).
All the recipes in Back Pocket Pasta are tried and true — handed down within Henry’s own family or from her friends. Just as the Alfredo came from Lalli Music a few of the other no-fuss recipes I tried, such as, the Pesto alla Trapanese and the Pasta with Spinach and Goat Cheese, hail from others who are close to Henry. If Henry doesn’t have a recipe for it, she knows just the person to call upon. I appreciate how she can point the home cook in the right direction for whatever type of pasta dish they’re in the mood for. Bonnie Slotnick’s Pasta with Spinach and Goat Cheese is divine! At only 4 ingredients it proves that a homecooked meal is never more than one pot away!
The one section I have yet to really explore is the section on Salads and Sides. Here you’ll find several gorgeous salads along with her husband, Chad’s, Garlic Bread. There’s also a guide on pairing up your meal to a great wine or cocktail. She’s thoughtfully included these little extras to round out the book and, in this way, I feel like Back Pocket Pasta acts as both a cookbook as well as a guide to simple, beautiful weeknight meals. There’s something to be said for sitting down to a meal that picks you up rather than stressing you out. Checkout my custom Instagram hashtag #backpocketpastaisshipshape or my dedicated Facebook post to see what I’ve been cooking up “on the fly.”
** When I started to post pictures of recipes that I tried from Back Pocket Pasta the first question I got was: “What exactly is back pocket pasta?” My understanding of the expression used here is that you have a well-stocked pantry with easy to prepare recipes “in your back pocket” (ideas you’re saving until later when you need a delicious meal prepared in no time).
I used my own personal copy to happily write this review.