Coming Home Pasta, an excerpt from Always Home by Fanny Singer
There are a few things, or, I should say, a few dishes, that I associate with coming home after a long period away. The main one, of course, is Coming Home Pasta. Whenever my family left for a stretch of weeks— what as a child resembled an eternity—we would come home to our strange-feeling house and immediately set about orienting ourselves through food. To be fair, we oriented ourselves through food wherever the place or the time or the country or the continent, but the fact that such an orientation felt necessary even at home I think does speak to our family’s particular brand of devotion.
I can very distinctly remember the feeling of coming home to the Berkeley house after a long trip. As we spilled through the front door, the house would creak under our luggage, as if in our absence, it had grown unaccustomed to the weight both of us and of our cargo. The house smelled a bit stale and of dust, always, a scent amplified by the ancient floor heaters as they were switched on and began to roast the particles accumulated after so many weeks of disuse. We always seemed to be returning after nightfall, and so these memories of nostos (a bit of Homerian vocabulary feels warranted her) are tinged with the inky hue of night, or rather have since taken on a fuzzy, winedark haze, much like the color Homer paints of the Odyssean seas. And indeed it was always a moment for opening a bottle of wine, usually red, because that meant that no one had to have remembered to chill it before leaving, Plucked from the cellar, it could be counted on to immediately slake parental thirst. One or the other guardian (or Bob) would descend through the trapdoor in the kitchen floor—an architectural feature I am so used to as to be inured to its eccentricity, though this detail is never lost on new visitors to the house—and proceed to the musty-smelling cellar below where, during my father’s tenure at least, a very considerable wine inventory was stored.
No one unpacked. Rather a wordless series of actions was set into motion: the putting on of a pot of water to boil, the burning of a parched rosemary branch left out in the basket on the table (our family’s incense), the lighting of a candle, the rustling in the pantry drawers for a bag of pasta, opened or unopened—it didn’t matter. I was usually dispatched to the garden with a flashlight to pick a few handfuls of herbs. This generally meant parsley, sometimes a bit of oregano—only the herbs that could withstand a good stretch of neglect and whose flavor didn’t change too much if they’d mostly gone to seed. Sending me out into the dark of the back garden had the added benefit of giving my mom a brief window in which to quickly extract a few anchovies from under salt in their container in the fridge and add them to the sauce (if you could even call the frugal dressing characteristic of Coming Home Pasta a sauce). I would have balked at their inclusion; once anchovies were incorporated into a dish and decently disguised, however, I would eat them contentedly. Other things were rummaged for: some still-firm cloves of garlic to mince and fry in oil in the gleaming blue-black lap of my mother’s favorite cast-iron pan; some chili flakes to join the garlic there in its hot oil shimmy. The smell of the house would begin to transform.
There was reliably a nubbin of ancient Parmesan in the fridge, blooming with pale age spots but unspoiled. It would taste fine, even good, grated and married with the other heady flavors of garlic and chili and herbs and anchovy and sometimes a handful of coarsely chopped salt-packed capers, whose flavor was pleasantly abrupt and tangy. Sea salt, black pepper, and a good, voluptuous pour of olive oil at the end. This was Coming Home Pasta. We ate this concoction in relative silence. The darkness made it seem frivolous to switch on music; conversation felt redundant after so many hours trapped together in transit. So we twirled our next-to-naked noodles and ate to know that we had made it—made it back home again to the table.
Making Coming Home Pasta scarcely requires more articulation of method then I’ve already given it—it is very open to interpretation and should to be adapted to whatever you have on hand. Alice Trillin, the very beloved wife of Calvin “Bud” Trillin—the man I think of as my Jewish godfather, though I realize that’s a contradiction in terms— wrote me a not-dissimilar recipe called Lonely Girl Pasta for Fanny’s Exclusive College Survival Cookbook, the book my parents and Bob presented to me as a high school graduation gift. Alice submitted her recipe the year she passed away, and I’ve always felt more than a pang of sadness reading over its gentle and pragmatic instructions and economical ingredients. Still, I believe her recipe presumed the presence of at least a bell pepper or broccoli floret in the refrigerator, still fresh enough to merit inclusion. Such was not the case in our house, both because bell peppers and broccoli were generally frowned upon (I think my mom associated them with the insipid canned vegetables of her youth) and because her obsession with voiding the icebox of its contents prior to our departure bordered on compulsion. Her close friends and I tease her that one of her biggest pet peeves is an abundantly stocked fridge.
But despite the spareness of the ingredients and the unfussiness of the preparation, this is in fact a delicious pasta recipe. The Italians— progenitors of time-tested dishes whose names are nice-sounding translations of things as uncomplicated as “cheese and pepper” (cacio e pepe), “garlic, oil and chili” (aglio, olio, e peperoncino), and “tomato” (al pomodoro)—can be trusted on this subject: often the best-tasting dishes are the simplest.
The second you walk through the door, put the water on to boil. Even if it comes to a boil before you’ve gathered your wits or prepared the other components, there’s something about the way a pot of simmering water immediately lends atmosphere to a room and imparts a sense of homeliness. Salt the water abundantly. Locate whatever leftover, desultory dry pasta you may have in your pantry. If you are feeding more than one person and have a little bit of three kinds and not enough of any one, boil three separate pots of water. (Do not be tempted, as I often have, to boil different shapes or types of pasta in the same pot; it’s a guaranteed disaster of under- and overdoneness.) I don’t mind combining the varieties afterward so long as they’re all more or less the same species, although this admission no doubt amounts to some form of sacrilege—just try not to mix a fusilli with a linguine, etc.
Garlic—garlic is the next most important ingredient. Yes, this pasta can be made with an onion instead—that lesser allium—diced and softened in olive oil in a pan, but garlic is the flavor that I think most brings you back into yourself, most provokes that necessary feeling of reembodiment after a period of travel. Still, use the garlic only if its cloves are very firm and shiny once unsheathed, and the smell, when sliced open, is peppery and fresh and not at all dusty or stale. Mince the garlic (the more cloves the merrier) and fry in a heavy-bottomed pan in a good glug of olive oil. Once the garlic starts to smell fragrant, add a few pinches of chili, if you like spice, and then a couple of chopped anchovy fillets (the best I’ve ever tasted—and this from a former skeptic—are the high-quality Spanish varieties packed in olive oil). A few chopped capers are also welcome at this stage, but be sure to rinse them if they’ve been kept in salt. Be careful that the garlic never begins to brown or burn while your attention is elsewhere. Turn off the flame immediately if it starts to migrate in that direction.
Your pasta should be al dente, both because the toothiness of the noodles in some way compensates for the slightness of other ingredients, but also because you will be coming home hungry from a trip and will want to remove the noodles at the first possible moment. Heed this impulse. Use a spider or tongs to transfer the pasta directly into your frying pan, adding a bit of the salted cooking water if you feel it needs lubrication. Grate a generous amount of Parmesan into the pan and add a handful of chopped parsley if you have fresh herbs in your garden or in a window box. Correct with extra olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a generous showering of zest, a pinch of salt, or some ground pepper, if necessary. When it tastes just right, yell out, “À table!” as my mother did before every single meal, as if calling not just her child, but the whole neighborhood, to the table. There’s always enough food for one more.
Excerpted from Always Home by Fanny Singer. Copyright © 2020 Fanny Singer. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Photos by Brigitte Lacombe.