After that Lebanese cheap-as-heck-have-it-all-in-my-pantry Mjuddra recipe, I want to share with you another super-cheap-there-isn't-any-food-in-the-house-what-will-we-make-for-dinner staple of our childhood (and, in fact, adulthood), this time Italian, which our Mom always used to make (though our Dad is the Italian one; Mama's honorary Italian-Lebanese since she can cook all this stuff beautifully). She had a number of variations, and I feel like we always had it on fridays (being Catholics we always had fish, or at least no meat, on fridays). We called it Pasta with Anchovy Sauce, a name which sounds great to me, but which (I fear) will elicit a grimace/shudder from the general population. I can't deny it - my love for fish in cans (of practically all kinds) is very strong. Believe me, the anchovies melt right into the olive oil, you don't even know they're there! It just tastes great - rich, salty, garlicky, yummy. Plus, there are practically no ingredients.
The basic recipe is to heat about 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil in a large sauce pan (full disclosure: I never measure, I just have a big wide frying pan that fits a pound of pasta, and I cover the bottom generously with oil), add anywhere from 3 to 5 thinly sliced garlic cloves, and a can of anchovies (with or without the oil they're packed in, I usually don't use it). Keep the heat on medium low at most, low if your garlic is getting brown, for a good 15 minutes at least, mashing at the anchovies with a wooden spoon, till they break down completely into a kind of brown paste. You want your garlic to get super soft and infuse into the oil, you don't want it brown and crisp up.
At this point, you could toss in your al dente pasta (any shape is great, boil it in generously salted water), grate on some black pepper, sprinkle with grated parmigiano, and eat it; you'd already have a total flavor sensation as well as a rich, satisfying (cheap!) meal on your hands. But many variations are possible. Some ideas for additions:
crushed red pepper
sliced bell peppers
sliced jalapenos (one of my mom's favorite additions I seem to remember)
any vegetable cut into bite sized pieces
sun dried tomato, sliced or chopped
halved grape tomatoes (add them off the heat with the pasta)
grated lemon zest
This time our friend Reba was staying with us, in town so she could work (like a champ) on her thesis; on her way home she picked up a head of broccoli and a package of baby spinach (I had never thought of this idea, and man was it great!). So I cut up the broccoli pretty small, and threw that in with my penne for the last couple of minutes of boiling, and added the spinach right to the olive oil/garlic/anchovy mix in the big pan (to which I had added crushed red pepper and capers); the spinach wilted right down beautifully, and I drained and added the pasta and broccoli (saving a little of the pasta water in case of needing to loosen things up, which I did end up needing to do). I sprinkled on some grated cheese, and tossed it all around. Pretty good.
But my favorite part of this iteration of the dish was that I decided to make some garlicky toasted bread crumbs, for topping each serving (Mama never did this, I think I got this from Mario Batali or Lydia Bastianich). I took a big fat slice of some bread I had made the day before and removed the crust (this would probably equal 2 or 3 slices of store sliced bread). I tore the bread up into the food processor, and added 2 cloves of garlic, which I had chopped up a bit to help it disperse evenly among the bread crumbs. I let the food processor go until the bread crumbs were fairly small. I heated 2 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan, and added the breadcrumb/garlic mixture. You want to stir it around to get the fat to evenly coat all the crumbs, and then cook, stirring pretty regularly, until the crumbs turn a nice golden brown. Like toasting nuts, the crumbs will continue to get darker after you've turned off the heat, so stop a little before they look quite as brown as you want them.
A final word or two - of course you can leave out the anchovies if you want. But will you try them? Maybe just once? You might like them! Try using a half a can your first time. And also: yes, there are little bones in the anchovy filets. They're fine! You can chew them right up, it's no problem. You won't even know they're there, plus I'm sure they must contain a lot of nice calcium, so they're good for you.