Big Little Recipes

This 2-Ingredient Pasta Sauce Was Made for Weeknight Dinners

January  7, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making a cheery, two-ingredient pasta sauce.


Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi.

One of the most popular recipes from Six Seasons—Joshua McFadden’s award-winning book on vegetable cookery—is a green sauce for pasta. The recipe was sparked by Ruth Rogers’ River Cafe in London (which was presumably also the muse for Jamie Oliver’s super green spaghetti—Oliver worked there in the ’90s as sous chef).

All of these have the same structure: mostly Tuscan kale (aka lacinato kale, dinosaur kale, or cavolo nero), boiled until tender, then blended with a sting of garlic and stream of olive oil. In Rogers’ version, Parmesan is sprinkled on top; McFadden tosses some with the pasta and throws on more at the end; Oliver adds ricotta.

When Tejal Rao interviewed McFadden about his recipe for The New York Times, she asked if other winter greens were eligible for the same treatment. “I would never make this with anything else,” he replied.

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Top Comment:
“The kale sauce referenced used olive oil and garlic and looks delicious, but this version was basically broccoli pureed with salted pasta water. The cheddar cheese is hardly detectable. I do appreciate recipes that are simple to prepare. However, in this case, less is not more. It is certainly healthy though. ”
— Jennifer B.
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But I would.

Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi.

The green I had in mind wasn’t technically a green—that is, a leafy thing like spinach or collards or escarole. It was broccoli. What would happen if you hacked one into florets, boiled it in salty water, then blitzed it into oblivion? Would warm pasta welcome it with open arms?

Yes, with some nips and tucks along the way. To make an already little recipe even littler, I ditched the garlic. I also switched up the cheese, from crumbly Parmesan to melty cheddar—just 1/2 cup yields a fondue-like creaminess, so much so that you (gasp) don’t even need the olive oil.

Arguably the most important ingredient is—as it often is with this column (hi minimalist meatloaf, hello chocolatey tahini cups)—water. Of course, you need liquid to turn broccoli puree into broccoli sauce. You could turn on the faucet and that would work just fine. But! Since we’re already boiling broccoli and pasta in water, we’re turning that water into a well-seasoned, broccoli-flavored, pasta-starchy stock. Talk about bang for your buck. This not only thickens the sauce—it bumps up the vegetal flavor, too.

It’s the sort of sauce you should make when you’ve had a tough day or long week or tough day after a long week. When you don’t want to make dinner. When you’re tired or sick or craving something green. When you want to feel taken care of. Call it self-care.

I like to use whole-wheat pasta, which I realize is upsetting to some. But it’s my pantry go-to (have you tried Bionaturae? you should) and I admire its grainy-nutty flavor. If you don’t, of course you can swap in any variety you like.

Just don’t skip the grated cheddar on top. That isn’t up for debate.

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

8 Comments

Betty P. January 17, 2020
Its missing something. Needs garlic or onion or more cheese.
 
Jon T. January 16, 2020
All of that sodium is not good.
 
Babs I. January 16, 2020
I absolutely agree on the Bionaturae pasta. Good flavor and texture.
 
annette January 16, 2020
Another lovely River Cafe pasta is lemon juice and zest with olive oil, parm-regg and garlic. I like to add broccoli to that, and always include an anchovy or two in a broccoli dish—that perfect unidentifiable umami. A sprinkle of crushed red pepper adds a lot to broccoli on pasta.
 
Catharine B. January 12, 2020
I didn't have sharp cheddar and used kind of a trashy processed smoked cheese instead and it was great!
 
Jennifer B. January 9, 2020
Well, I made this for dinner tonight and have to say that two ingredients, while quick and easy, were not enough to give this sauce a nice texture or flavor.

The kale sauce referenced used olive oil and garlic and looks delicious, but this version was basically broccoli pureed with salted pasta water. The cheddar cheese is hardly detectable.

I do appreciate recipes that are simple to prepare. However, in this case, less is not more.

It is certainly healthy though.



 
Catharine B. January 12, 2020
Try a smoked cheese
 
AntoniaJames January 7, 2020
Thanks for the tip re Bionaturae. 100% whole wheat? Yes, please. Looking forward to trying that recipe. ;o)