Whenever I decide to cook straight from the pantry, one of two things usually results: pasta or beans.
No matter how fetchingly the other long-term tenants of the larder beckon (I see you, tinned fish! Hiya, eggs!), I lean on pasta and beans most for last-minute meals.
They are the two ingredients that everyone in my house almost always feels like eating. They both are also incredibly versatile shape-shifters that play nicely with whatever other staples I have on hand: typically some combination of lemon, garlic, olive oil and chile flakes. Easygoing pros, pasta and beans never cause a fuss.
This time, though, instead of limiting myself to one starring ingredient, I opted to mix them, letting them share the pan to create a dinner as memorable as it is convenient.
Of course, pasta and beans have already co-starred in many classic dishes. There’s pasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci, both of which can be as soupy or stewlike as you prefer. And then there’s minestrone, which falls squarely into the brothier camp.
I wanted this dish to be more like a saucy pasta than a soupy stew (or stew-y soup), something to eat with a fork, not a spoon. I pictured a velvety bean sauce clinging to the pasta, full of lemony, garlicky, chile-laden character.
Canned beans have an edge over home-cooked in achieving just the right texture here, because they tend to be starchier and easier to mash into the olive oil in the pan. But this is a pantry meal, so use whatever you have on hand. Letting the beans braise in copious amounts of oil, along with the aromatics, helps them absorb flavor and break down into a silky sauce.
Yet it’s the pasta water that’s instrumental in getting the correct texture. Add just enough to thin out the bean mixture so it can coat the pasta, drizzling it in little by little, but stop short of flooding the pan.
I’ve finished this dish minimally, with just Parmesan and something green like parsley or arugula (or spinach, or basil, or whatever is in residence in your produce drawer). These fresh, verdant flecks, coupled with a squeeze of lemon juice, brighten the dish and add crucial acidity and color. It’s pivotal little touches like these that allow even a classic pairing to really shine anew.
Lemony Pasta With Braised White Beans
Braising canned white beans with garlic, chile flakes and olive oil is a classic recipe – a speedy, meatless, very satisfying weeknight meal. This version turns the mix into a sauce for pasta, brightened by lemon juice and zest, and rounded out with fresh parsley or arugula and cherry tomatoes, a juicy contrast to the velvety beans. The pasta water also plays an important role here, keeping the beans from becoming pasty. Use the best olive oil you can, especially for drizzling at the end. That’s where you’ll really taste it, and a robust, herbal oil will add a lot of character to this simple dish.
1 pound short pasta, such as shells or orecchiette
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
1 cup diced cherry or other ripe tomatoes
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper, plus more as needed
2 large shallots, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 lemon, zest finely grated
2 (15.5-ounce) cans white beans, rinsed and drained
1½ cups chopped parsley or arugula leaves and tender stems
½ cup grated Parmesan, plus more as needed
In a large pot of well-salted water, cook pasta according to package directions.
As pasta cooks, combine in a small bowl 1 tablespoon olive oil, the tomatoes and a pinch each of salt and red pepper, and toss to combine. Set aside to marinate.
In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil over medium. Stir in shallots and sauté until tender, about five minutes. Stir in garlic and cook one minute, or until the edges just begin to turn golden brown. Add red pepper, ½ teaspoon salt, lemon zest, beans and 1 cup chopped parsley. Simmer, mashing some of the beans, until the sauce has thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Reduce heat as needed. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and red pepper if needed.
Reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta. Add pasta to white beans, along with remaining ½ cup chopped parsley, the juice of half a lemon, the grated Parmesan and ½ cup reserved pasta water. Toss until combined, adding more pasta water until the mixture is saucy. Toss in the tomatoes and their liquid. Taste, and add more salt and lemon juice if needed. Serve pasta in bowls drizzled with olive oil and topped with more grated Parmesan.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.