This is a dinner you can fish out of your bare kitchen and cook in 10 minutes that will make you feel whole, with nothing more than modestly proportioned dry pasta, butter, chicken stock, pepper, and lemon. As writer Emily Nunn said when she posted the recipe on Instagram last year, “Sounds bleh. It's ridiculously good.”
She found the recipe in an out-of-print cookbook from 1986 by Sue Kreitzman* called simply Comfort Food—a family friend had sent it to Nunn after she’d signed her own book contract for her recent memoir The Comfort Food Diaries, about her search for consoling foods and friendship after a series of heart-breaking events. (That's all I'll tell you—you must read it!)
In the little Comfort Food cookbook, however, Nunn never made it past the Lemon Butter Angel Hair. “I could not believe how good it was,” she wrote to me recently. “And it became the dish I made when I got home too late to cook for myself or when I was out of fresh ingredients or when I was feeling lazy or, frankly, when I needed something that made me cozy.”
The recipe is perfect for all of these situations, because that 10 minutes really is all it takes. You’re not waiting for a pot of salty water to boil, and the only prep you’re doing is crushing spindly dry noodles in your hands. After toasting the pasta bits quickly in butter (as you would a rice pilaf or risotto), you dump in your cup of chicken broth and black pepper and the noodles drink it all up.
The pasta ends up richly seasoned inside and out and, with one last squeeze of lemon, you’ve completed the mission. “People have said to me: all it needs is a little Parm Reggiano,” Nunn wrote to me. “But it does not need any cheese at all because it is made like a risotto, meaning it makes its own creamy sauce.”
Of course, this absorption pasta technique—cooking pasta in a small amount of liquid to concentrate the flavors and starches to make it extra-creamy—is nothing new. It made a splash most recently in the Martha Stewart One-Pan Pasta that took over the internet in 2014, but it goes back much further than that. As Clotilde Dusoulier wrote in 2006, “According to Virka—who read it in the Italian paper La Reppublica so it simply must be true—this cooking technique dates back from the early 13th century, and was in fact the only one that was used before it was displaced by the now-classic boiling method.”
But what is unusual here is how utterly pared back it is, and how much you can eke out from so little. And in using skinny pasta with such minimalism, how fast. In certain moments, it's the best of all absorption pastas, in the way that elemental foods are always the most comforting.
This simplicity allows you to taste everything more resolutely, without distraction: savory broth**, lemon juice, black pepper, butter, toasted wheat. These are flavors that deserve full attention. When you’re not feeling shipshape, you don’t want complex frills on your buttered toast or porridge, or getting between you and your matzo balls, do you? Nor would it do any good here.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 ounces angel hair pasta
- 1 cup hot chicken stock
- 1 pinch Freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 splash Lemon juice to taste
*Sue Kreitzman, a fabulously colorful and prolific artist since 1998, now lives by a manifesto that includes: "Don’t wear beige—it might kill you." and "Avoid minimalism like the plague."
**Nunn's favorite version is now made using Better than Bouillon, "chicken flavor of course because it is so chickeny." She adds: "I don't end up adding salt because that Better than Bouillon stuff is like plutonium, but without the killing you part."
Photos by Julia Gartland
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to comfort food professional Emily Nunn and Instagram sleuth Sarah Jampel for this one!