Lemon, olive oil and garlic are the foundation of so many pantry meals, a harmonious trio I use to flavor pretty much everything — fish, chicken, vegetables, grains — stopping only at dessert because, well, garlic. Often spiked with chile flakes and Parmesan, the combination makes any dish taste deep and complex, without your having to do much to get there. It’s a no-brainer, easy alchemy that never fails.
Yet, as rock-solid as this grouping may be, there are times when a person gets the itch to shake things up. This is especially true in early January, when new ideas hold the promise of bold tomorrows, and dependable old habits suddenly need a refresh.
And so recently, while cooking up one of my go-to pastas, I reached right past my trusty bottle of extra-virgin and grabbed some butter from the fridge instead. I heated it in a skillet until it melted and browned, filling the kitchen with a sweet, nutty scent.
Then, in place of sizzling thin slivers of garlic in the fat as is my wont, I threw in sliced almonds, which resemble garlic but taste mellow, not pungent. I let them toast and turn golden, so they could accentuate the flavors of the brown butter and add crunch.
As for the lemon — the only part of the original trinity I kept — I stirred in both juice and zest. And then I zipped it all up with a shower of chile flakes and Parmesan.
Finally, to turn this into a one-pot meal, I threw in handfuls of arugula, watching it melt on the hot linguine, turning silky but keeping its peppery kick.
The final pasta tasted nothing like its olive oily, garlicky predecessor, but was bright and tangy, warm and buttery in its own delicious way — a brand-new take on a dish with venerable old roots.
Typically for this type of minimalist recipe, I’d urge you to seek out the very best ingredients: the finest Parmigiano-Reggiano, small-batch pasta extruded through some sort of heirloom bronze die, fancy high-fat cultured butter and the like.
But after testing this multiple times with a wide spectrum of ingredients, I can vouch that the batches made with supermarket staples were nearly as good as the ones made from more expensive products. So use whatever you have. Your dinner will be delightful — which, after all, is what a pantry meal is all about.
BUTTERY LEMON PASTA WITH ALMONDS AND ARUGULA
Brown butter, crunchy almonds and tangy lemon make a rich but balanced sauce for this pantry-friendly pasta. The arugula lends freshness and rounds out the pasta, turning this into a quick one-pot meal. If you want to increase the vegetables, you can double the arugula. (Just add a little more lemon juice.) And if you don’t have baby (or wild) arugula on hand, spinach or baby kale are fine, though slightly milder, substitutes. Don’t stint on the red-pepper flakes; their spiciness helps bring together the flavors.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 25 minutes
Fine salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound linguine or spaghetti
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sliced almonds
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more to taste
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
4 to 5 ounces baby or wild arugula, coarsely chopped, or use baby kale or spinach (4 to 5 cups)
Grated Parmesan, for serving
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until it is 1 minute shy of being al dente, usually a minute or 2 less than the package instructions. Scoop out about 1 1/2 cups pasta water, then drain pasta.
While the pasta cooks, in a large skillet or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat. Cook, swirling occasionally, until the foam subsides, the milk solids turn golden-brown and the butter smells nutty and toasty, 3 to 4 minutes. (Watch carefully to see that it doesn’t burn.)
Stir in almonds, rosemary and red-pepper flakes, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the nuts are toasted and slightly darker in color, about 1 minute.
Add about 1 cup pasta water to the skillet and bring to a simmer. Add lemon juice, zest, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a large pinch of black pepper, then add drained pasta and toss well. Add arugula, tossing until it wilts. Simmer for another minute, if needed, to thicken the sauce until it’s thick and glossy. If the mixture seems dry, add more pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time.
Taste and add more salt, red-pepper flakes and lemon juice, if needed. Serve topped with grated Parmesan and more red-pepper flakes, if you like.