When I was a kid, I would intentionally order take-out from a restaurant that delivered limp, overcooked spaghetti tossed in no-frills marinara sauce. That spaghetti went straight to the refrigerator, so my father could find it the following day and perform my all-time favorite culinary feat: transforming cold leftover noodles into a warm, born-again pasta. My dad called it “the spruce up.”
The spruce up method is meant for any leftover pasta featuring a tomato-based sauce. Regardless of how sad-looking those tangles may be, the spruce up will often make your pasta look and taste better than it did in its youngest form.
The guiding light of the spruce up is a bath of olive oil (just enough to coat a large skillet) and garlic (six thinly sliced cloves), to which you add your leftovers to and gently pan-fry. First set the oiled skillet over medium heat, then add the garlic; as soon as the cloves begin to turn golden brown along the edges, add the leftover pasta. If your leftover pasta will not fit comfortably in the skillet, then work in batches. Cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the sauce darkens to a deep, rusty red. This results in bold umami flavors that are similar to slow-roasted tomatoes. Be patient, and only stop when the sauce turns a brick-like red—you want to wait for that definitive transformation of noodles, sauce, and, most importantly, the garlic, which will take on some of that red hue. This, I believe, is the most compelling part of the dish, because the garlic’s sweetness and toasty crunch travels to each bite. Garnish the dish with a sprinkle of grated parmigiano, and you have comfort food at its best.
There are infinite variation on the spruce up. Feel free to add a handful of your favorite fresh herbs just as the noodles finish cooking (try basil, parsley, thyme, or even some finely chopped rosemary). You could also grate a heavy layer of your favorite cheese over the top of the finished pasta and place the whole skillet under the broiler until a layer of bubbly brown cheese caps your spruced-up meal. Vegetables are another great add-in: Try a handful of spinach, chopped radicchio, diced bell peppers, or any other vegetable that tastes good when it is just barely cooked—in other words, something you would be happy to eat raw, but that will also taste good slightly warmed in pasta.
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My dad’s pasta spruce up has lingered in my memory since childhood because it instilled in me a valuable cooking lesson: If you start with a skillet, add some olive oil, and fry some garlic, you are bound end up with something delicious to eat, almost regardless of what the main ingredient was destined to be.
The following recipes would make for excellent original meals, and equally excellent leftovers for the spruce up:
Born and raised in Brooklyn, I'm perpetually inspired by the diversity of foods that exist in this city. I love shopping at the farmer's market, making ingredients taste like the best versions of themselves, and rolling fresh pasta.